Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 5

David Eller writes chapter 5: Love Your Enemy, Kill Your Enemy: Crusades, Inquisitions, and Centuries of Christian Violence. He summarizes his chapter as follows:

This chapter will focus on two episodes of Christian violence, violence that was not only protracted but officially authorized and highly institutionalized — namely, the Crusades and the Inquisition. However, these two phenomena are not isolated from each other or from wider Christian history; indeed, we will argue here that the Inquisition was a continuation of the crusading spirit long after the war with Muslims was lost, since the Crusades themselves were not “an organized campaign under unopposed military or ecclesiastical leadership but a movement, supported by individuals whose motivations for taking the cross were as varied as their social and ethnic ties” (and as varied and contradictory as Christianity’s own opinions on war). Finally, both the Crusades and the Inquisition follow a long history of Christian justification for violence, justification that, as historian Jonathan Phillips put it, “continues to resonate in modern politics” and “shows no sign of diminishing.”

This chapter covers most of the 2,000 year history of Christianity. It is a one-sided look at history, not a balanced look at history. I’ll restrict my comments to topics I know better than others.

War and Peace (but Mostly War) in the Formation of Christianity

In the first section the author admits:

As for committing violence, early Christians shrank from it in horror. Blessed are the peacemakers who turn the other cheek, after all, their savior taught them. Roland Bainton found no sources before the era of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity in 313, that “countenanced Christian participation in warfare.” For instance, no Christians served in the Roman army until 173 CE, and Tertullian wrote sternly against military service. Obeying their savior, Christian thinkers like Athenagoras and Justin Martyr recommended not resisting evil, not defending oneself, not even notifying the police if one was robbed, and happily dying for Christ instead of killing for him.

This confirms what can be deduced from reading the New Testament: the foundational teachings of Christianity, the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, are generally peaceful in nature. It is simply false to state that the formation of Christianity involved “mostly war” unless we are going to say the formative years of Christianity stretched to the fourth century.

Eller attempts to water down the peacefulness of early Christians:

In its early decades, Christianity was hardly in a position to make war.

Christian pacifism proved to be more a virtue of the weak (causing no harm when one is too weak to cause harm) than a truly principled stance. Almost as soon as the Church stopped being persecuted, it began persecuting, now with the machinery of state on its side.

It is not true that Christianity could not have waged war in its first decades. Jesus and the apostles were Jews and could have supported and participated in movements that led to the Jewish wars with Rome. They made a decision not to do so. It was not a decision forced on them by circumstances.

Consider the context in which Christianity began:

Killing was widespread and acceptable in the world where the early Christians lived. Roman culture of course accepted and glorified killing by the Roman army. Capital punishment via the sword and crucifixion was also the norm. In addition, Greco-Roman culture in the first three centuries justified and accepted widespread abortion, infanticide, and suicide. And one of the most popular “sports” events of the time was the gladiatorial contests, where trained gladiators fought to the death, cheered on by thousands of spectators. That was the context in which the early Christians developed their own witness on killing.1

Against this context, it is unfair to state that the Christian pacifism of the first centuries was not a truly principled stance. It was a counter-cultural stance that the early Christians were willing to suffer or die for. “Prior to the advent of Christianity there is no record of anyone suffering death for a refusal of military service.”2

Nor was it the case that Christians could not have acted violently if they had wanted to. Consider the words of Tertullian (Apology 37):

Yet, banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to, though, if it were held right among us to repay evil by evil, a single night with a torch or two could achieve an ample vengeance? But away with the idea of a sect divine avenging itself by human fires, or shrinking from the sufferings in which it is tried. If we desired, indeed, to act the part of open enemies, not merely of secret avengers, would there be any lacking in strength, whether of numbers or resources? . . . We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you — cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum, — we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods. For what wars should we not be fit, not eager, even with unequal forces, we who so willingly yield ourselves to the sword, if in our religion it were not counted better to be slain than to slay?

Or, again, consider the words of Origen (Against Celsus 3.8):

But with regard to the Christians, because they were taught not to avenge themselves upon their enemies (and have thus observed laws of a mild and philanthropic character); and because they would not, although able, have made war even if they had received authority to do so, — they have obtained this reward from God, that He has always warred in their behalf, and on certain occasions has restrained those who rose up against them and desired to destroy them.

Eller ends the section with the following:

Official orthodoxy branded all other interpretations unorthodoxy and heresy, and already in 385 Priscillian, the bishop of Spain, and six others were tortured and killed. The religion of peace and love had turned deadly.

One can be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of this quote, that the treatment of Priscillian was the norm in 385. It was not:

The most famous example of Martin’s standing against the state machinery of death, when his actions are seen compounded of an all-too-human admixture of hesitancy and courage, compromise and integrity, is provided by his role in the Priscillianist controversy, which came to a head in about the year 385. Priscillian, who in Spain had preached a species of ascetic renunciation flavored with a penchant for slightly dualistic apocryphal writings, at an episcopal synod at Bordeaux held to investigate his teachings had appealed from the judgment of the bishops to that of the emperor Magnus Maximus at his capital Trier. Thither many bishops of Spain and Gaul traveled, including Martin. Sulpicius Severus later observed that of all the assembled bishops there, many of whom were wealthy and powerful men, who disgraced their episcopal dignity by their abject fawning before the emperor and his court, only Martin by his steadfastness of character “maintained an apostolic authority.” Martin at first refused repeated invitations to the imperial table, until, according to Sulpicius Severus, he was finally persuaded to come to a banquet when Maximus declared to him that his unlooked-for victory over Gratian showed that he had become emperor by divine will, and that none of his enemies had been slain except in battle. At the banquet itself, when a servant offered a bowl of wine to the emperor and he ordered it to be given first to Martin, thinking that he would then be graced by receiving the bowl back from the bishop, Martin instead gave the bowl to his accompanying priest, an action in upholding the episcopal dignity that won even the emperor’s admiration.

Years later it was Sulpicius Severus’s opinion that in the trial before the emperor at Trier, the accusers of Priscillian, by his lights admittedly a heretic, were as bad as the accused. Their ringleader was Bishop Ithacius of Ossonuba (in today’s southern Portugal), and according to our source there was nothing holy about him. Although it led to his being charged with heresy himself, Martin repeatedly pressed Ithacius to withdraw the accusation, or at least prevail upon Maximus not to shed the blood of the heretics. Besides, it would be an unheard-of, unholy barbarity for an ecclesiastical matter to be judged by a secular authority. According to Sulpicius Severus, Martin before he left Trier went so far as to elicit a promise from Maximus that he would not inflict any punishment of blood upon Priscillian and his followers. But after Martin’s departure, the prosecution of Priscillian was resumed. He was eventually convicted on a charge of maleficium, and in 385 or 386 he and six of his associates were beheaded, while others were sent into exile.

The execution of Priscillian and his followers was a type of event still novel for its age: the participation of ministers of Christ in the judicial killing of fellow believers who thought and taught something at variance with what ecclesiastical authorities had deemed orthodox. Although the Priscillianists were widely regarded as heretics, many bishops in the West were shocked and appalled at what had happened. If one makes allowances for the exaggerations of panegyric, something of the contemporary opinion on the matter in secular circles can be derived from the speech given before the emperor Theodosius by the Gallic rhetor Pacatus in 389 in the aftermath of Maximus’s suppression. There Pacatus sarcastically admits that the Priscillianists had been guilty of “too much religion and too assiduous a worship of the divine.” He reserves special scorn for the bishops, unworthy of the name, who had instigated and encouraged the execution of the Priscillianists, bishops derided as toadies (satellites) and butchers (carnifices). After their participation in torture and execution, “they brought back to the sacred rites hands polluted by contact with capital punishment, and the ceremonies which they had defiled with their minds they also contaminated with their bodies.” And it seems ecclesiastical censure was likewise severe, and immediate. Ambrose of Milan, for his part, when on an embassy to Trier from the court in Italy would have nothing to do with the bishops involved in the Priscillianists’ prosecution. Pope Siricius in a letter to Maximus complained of ecclesiastics being tried before a secular tribunal, and of Bishop Ithacius’s role in making an accusation involving a capital charge.

One can well imagine the reaction of the ex-soldier bishop of Tours, who had left the army out of a conscientious aversion to bloodshed, to the news of the execution and exile of the Priscillianists. A synod of Gallic bishops was held at Trier soon afterwards, at which among other matters a successor to Bishop Britto of Trier had to be ordained. Maximus had put under royal protection Ithacius, who by acting as Priscillian’s accuser had rendered himself liable, in an ecclesiastical forum, of being charged with having played a role in the execution of human beings, this being regarded as sinful no matter what they had said or done. When Ithacius and his episcopal allies learned that Martin was nearing Trier, they became anxious that the renowned bishop of Tours would refrain from communion with them for their role in the executions and by his example encourage others to the same course. They had Maximus send out to meet Martin imperial functionaries forbidding him to enter the city unless he swore to share peace with the bishops at Trier, but Martin fobbed them off by declaring that he was coming “with the peace of Christ.” True to his initial resolution, Martin at first had nothing to do with the other bishops at Trier, but instead went to the palace to petition Maximus to rescind his plan to send imperial agents armed with capital authority (“cum iure gladiorum”) into Spain to prosecute the Priscillianists there, seeking thus, as Sulpicius Severus tells us, “to save not only Christians . . . but even the heretics themselves.”

Meanwhile the bishops associated with Ithacius had gone to the emperor to complain of Martin’s refusal to have communion with them. In a private interview with the stubborn bishop, Maximus assured him that the heretics had not been the victims of an episcopal witch-hunt, but had been justly convicted by the laws of the state, and that therefore there was no good reason not to share peace with Ithacius, who in any case had been declared free from blame in the affair in an episcopal meeting a few days earlier. Martin was not swayed by Maximus’s arguments. But upon learning that the emperor was proceeding with his plan to prosecute the Priscillianists in Spain, the bishop rushed to the palace and promised that he would communicate with the other bishops if the emperor called off any further prosecutions. Maximus agreed to the compromise. The next day Martin shared communion with his fellow bishops at the ordination of Felix as bishop of Trier, although he could not be induced to attach his subscription to a document attesting to his communication.

Martin instantly regretted his action. On the way home the next day he was visibly depressed. At one point he sat down dejectedly on the road in anguished torment over what he had done, being persuaded to go on only after an angelic visitation, according to our source, convinced him that, considering the circumstances, he had had no choice. When afterwards he cured the possessed with more difficulty than he had previously, he confessed with tears that since “the evil of that communion” he had sensed a diminution of his spiritual powers. Despite his actions at Trier, however, in the end it was not the well-connected courtier-bishops who had connived at the execution of the Priscillianists who are remembered as being a friend to humankind. And lest Sulpicius Severus be thought to have exaggerated Martin’s subsequent regret at communicating with Priscillian’s executioners in order to blunt the effect of what many then, and later, must have regarded as a disgraceful compromise, a blot on his reputation for integrity, the saint’s disciple refers to what must have been at the time a well-known fact, that for the rest of his life Martin never went to another synod, and kept his distance from any meeting of bishops.3

You Always Hurt the Ones You Love

After Constantine, Christian rulers needed to use violence to defend and govern the Empire. This section touches on Augustine and just war. Contrary to popular opinion, Augustine “had not formulated his own just war idea.”4 Eller then incorrectly states that Augustine thought war should be waged out of love.

It is true that Augustine had a number of times cited the example of a father disciplining his son with harsh correction to show that “there can be love in punishment,” and had explicitly likened that model to the actions of governors and kings in using punishment to maintain societal order. In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Augustine noted that in the past the saints had punished some sinners with death in order to instill fear in would-be sinners and to prevent those punished from committing even worse sins had they lived, adding that anyone so punishing “should punish with the disposition of a father punishing his little boy.” But although Augustine like many another Christian writer in later times could subsume under the state’s ius gladii both the exercise of domestic justice and the waging of war, all the above examples explicitly involve the state’s right to inflict capital punishment. As we have seen, Augustine knew very well what war was, and considered it one of the evils of postlapsarian life; tellingly, he did not include capital punishment in the lists of evils that included war. Almost everything he wrote regarding what should motivate leaders to initiate wars and soldiers to fight them involved the simple and straightforward duty to obey the orders of one’s superior: the leader should initiate war in obedience to God, and the soldier should fight in war in obedience to his legitimate superior. There is no mention of the need to fight with love in one’s heart.

In only one instance does Augustine come close to saying something of that sort. In his letter to Marcellinus refuting the pagan Volusianus’s charge that the pacifistic counsels of Christ were incompatible with the empire’s need to defend itself against its enemies, Augustine had countered that were the empire defended by an army that truly followed Christ’s commandments, then “even wars themselves would not be waged without kindness.” But as noted above in discussing this passage, this seems in context an (not unique) instance of polemical overkill on Augustine’s part; not only was he countering Volusianus’s unrealistic evocation of Christian quietism with an equally unrealistic picture of a thoroughly Christian army in a thoroughly Christian society, he was at the same time that he wrote this letter beginning The City of God, in which the earthly city was depicted as being ultimately irredeemable.5

Eller claims that Augustine gave “Christianity . . . the permission it needed to evolve from a pacifist to a militarist religion.” This is doubtful considering Augustine abhorred war.

Augustine’s attitude toward war, in fact, remained fairly constant, with little or no change discernible, in the almost three decades’ worth of written evidence we possess on the matter. Far from his being the stance of a detached theoretician of war, in either the broader or the narrower sense of the word, the constancy in his attitude was one of abhorrence. Even in the few instances when he seemed to approve of war, Augustine felt compelled to defend such statements; ironically, those very statements ultimately motivated by his aversion to war later helped make him into its justifier. His most consistent attitude toward war Augustine expressed a number of times quite simply and straightforwardly: war was one of the evils of this world.6

Augustine’s generally positive view of Christian military service does not mean, however, that he had a similar view of war. To him, war was one of the evils of this world. Roman history amply illustrated the truth that human beings in fighting each other acted worse than the most savage animals. He himself had witnessed firsthand the baleful effects of war, particularly in the civil wars that plagued his time. Though wars were evil, they nonetheless fell within the purview of divine providence. God used war to punish the wicked, or to test the virtue of the good. In wars that served particular ends of divine justice, God of course was ultimately in charge, but he chose boni, good men found in the appropriate rank in human society, to wage wars under divine auspices. Such boni, unlike ancient and some contemporary Romans, eschewed the pursuit of power and gloria for their own sakes. Most such wars had occurred in Old Testament times, but in the battle of the Frigidus the Christian emperor Theodosius, a contemporary example of a bonus, had fought after receiving assurance of divine support, a support manifested during the battle itself by a providential wind that was like the miracles in the battles of the Old Testament. As for the “just war” of the Romans, it was at best a necessary evil, at worst a pretext for crime.7

Eller goes on to say: “Augustine was also a champion of religious persecution, specifically against heretics whose beliefs diverged from Church orthodoxy.” It should be noted that Augustine changed his mind on this matter:

At first Augustine had resisted using the secular authorities to coerce the Donatists. He had ended up changing his mind, though, due to the intransigence and violence of the schismatics, and the undeniable success the enforcement of imperial edicts had had in convincing many of them to become orthodox.

I have, then, yielded to the facts suggested to me by my colleagues, although my first feeling about it was that no one was to be forced into the unity of Christ, but that we should act by speaking, fight by debating, and prevail by our reasoning, for fear of making pretended Catholics out of those whom we knew as open heretics. But this opinion of mine was overcome not by the words of those who controverted it, but by conclusive examples.8

Augustine did not want to see heretics killed:

It is also true that a survey of Augustine’s writings that focuses on his justifications for state-sanctioned killing and the licitness of Christian participation in it leaves a misleading impression of a certain bloody-mindedness on his part. On the issue of capital punishment, simply because he argued that legitimate authorities could execute criminals due to their having derived their authority ultimately from God does not mean that he thought they should. From early on, we see Augustine being sympathetic to the notion of avoiding the exaction of the ultimate penalty whenever possible. In 394 in his treatise De mendacio Augustine treated the question of whether a Christian should lie to conceal someone accused of murder, regardless of his innocence or guilt, since “it is part of Christian teaching not to despair of anyone’s correction or to shut off to anyone the possibility of repentance.” Augustine concluded that it is always wrong to lie. Nevertheless, he counsels a Christian who knows where a fugitive is to reply on being asked where, “I know but I will never reveal it,” even on pain of torture. One should go so far to preserve even the slightest possibility of someone’s repentance, even in the case of murderers. Augustine’s counsel here to go to such lengths to avoid the execution of criminals, regardless of their culpability, is at odds with the picture of him as the apologist for capital punishment.9

But we can see especially in his letters where Augustine gets down to “real world” cases. There what seems at times a hard-nosed rigidity is often softened by mercy and humanity. In every instance we know from his letters where real as opposed to theoretical capital punishment was involved, Augustine counseled mercy, even for Donatists who had killed and mutilated Catholic clergy.10

The above should not be taken as a defense of the persecution of heretics. I am merely trying to provide balance to Eller’s depiction of Augustine.

The Crusades against the Muslims

Thomas F. Madden summarizes the beginning of the Crusades:

With enormous energy, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after Mohammed’s death. They were extremely successful. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt — once the most heavily Christian areas in the world — quickly succumbed. By the eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the time of St. Paul. The old Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of western Europe asking them to aid their brothers and sisters in the East.

Eller writes:

Most importantly, as Geoffrey Hindley reminds us, the eye of western Christians was not exclusively or primarily on Jerusalem or the Muslims; after all, one Muslim ruler or another had occupied the holy city for four hundred years by the late eleventh century. In fact, Hindley contends that Pope Gregory VII (reigned 1073-85) “had envisaged a military campaign with himself as ‘general and pope,’ to establish papal primatial authority in Constantinople.” In other words, the immediate prize for the Catholic Church was not Jerusalem but the Eastern Church.

While I’m no expert on the Crusades this sounds questionable to me. I notice that Hindley contends Pope Gregory VII envisaged a military campaign. This suggests it is a matter of dispute that he really did so. But even if Pope Gregory VII did, in fact, envisage a military campaign to establish papal authority in Constantinople that does not mean the Crusaders, who fought after Gregory’s reign, fought for this reason.

Eller again:

The author of the Crusades, Pope Urban II (reigned 1088-99), seized the crisis in eastern Christendom as his chance to fulfill Gregory’s wish, calling upon Christians to rise to the holy cause of resisting the Turks; at the Council of Clermont, which convened on November 18, 1095, Urban “preached a sermon on the suffering of the Christians in the East and concluded with a passionate appeal for volunteers to enlist under the sign of the Cross of Christ.” But Michael Köhler insists too that “the conquest of the Holy Places was seemingly not a primary objective” of the Pope, and the War of the Cross as a program to take Jerusalem “was not presented to the Crusaders from the outset”; indeed, for many of the combatants, military action was “little more than an extensive conquering expedition” dressed up in Christian garb.

It is not clear how resisting the Turks was supposed to fulfill Gregory’s wish to establish papal authority in Constantinople. Kohler’s claim also seems doubtful if we read accounts of Urban II’s speech at Clermont:

Robert the Monk

Let the holy sepulchre of the Lord our Saviour, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially incite you, and the holy places which are now treated with ignominy and irreverently polluted with their filthiness. Oh, most valiant soldiers and descendants of invincible ancestors, be not degenerate, but recall the valor of your progenitors.

Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves.

This royal city, therefore, situated at the centre of the world, is now held captive by His enemies, and is in subjection to those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathens. She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated, and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid.

Version of Balderic of Dol

We say this, brethren, that you may restrain your murderous hands from the destruction of your brothers, and in behalf of your relatives in the faith oppose yourselves to the Gentiles. Under Jesus Christ, our Leader, may you struggle for your Jerusalem, in Christian battleline, most invincible line, even more successfully than did the sons of Jacob of old – struggle, that you may assail and drive out the Turks, more execrable than the Jebusites, who are in this land, and may you deem it a beautiful thing to die for Christ in that city in which He died for us.

And turning to the bishops, he said, “You, brothers and fellow bishops; you, fellow priests and sharers with us in Christ, make this same announcement through the churches committed to you, and with your whole soul vigorously preach the journey to Jerusalem.

Version of Guibert de Nogent

Most beloved brethren, if you reverence the source of that holiness and if you cherish these shrines which are the marks of His footprints on earth, if you seek (the way), God leading you, God fighting in your behalf, you should strive with your utmost efforts to cleanse the Holy City and the glory of the Sepulchre, now polluted by the concourse of the Gentiles, as much as is in their power.

Consider, therefore, that the Almighty has provided you, perhaps, for this purpose, that through you He may restore Jerusalem from such debasement. Ponder, I beg you, how full of joy and delight our hearts will be when we shall see the Holy City restored with your little help, and the prophet’s, nay divine, words fulfilled in our times.

Unfortunately, Eller does not opine on whether it was morally permissible for Christians from the West to come to the aid of Christians in the East and to capture lands that had been lost. There is nothing obviously wrong with these aims.

Moving on, Eller seems to think the Muslim general Saladin was more merciful than the Crusaders:

As the Christians were fading in power, a Muslim general, Salah-ed-Din or Saladin, was rising. Between the late 1160s and late 1180s, he grew from the ruler of Egypt to the head of a resurgent Islam, reconquering Jerusalem in 1187; impressively, unlike the good Christian soldiers, he did not slaughter the city’s inhabitants but actually protected local Christians from harm.

Rodney Stark explains why this is a misreading of Saladin:

Admiration for Saladin is not a recent invention. Since the Enlightenment, Saladin has “bizarrely” been portrayed “as a rational and civilized figure in juxtaposition to credulous barbaric crusaders.” Even Edward Gibbon, writing in 1788, noted, “Of some writers it is a favourite and invidious theme to compare the humanity of Saladin with the massacre of the first crusade . . . but we should not forget that the Christians offered to capitulate, and that the Mahometans of Jerusalem sustained the last extremities of an assault and storm.” There we have it, one of the primary rules of warfare at that time: cities were spared if they did not force their opponents to take them by storm; they were massacred as an object lesson to other cities if they had to be stormed, since this usually inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. This rule did not require cities to surrender quickly: long sieges were acceptable, but only until the attackers had completed all of the preparations needed to storm the walls. Of course, cities often did not surrender at this point because they believed the attack could be defeated.

Not only have Saladin’s modern fans ignored this rule of war; they have carefully ignored the fact, acknowledged by Muslim writers, that Jerusalem was an exception to Saladin’s usual butchery of his enemies. Saladin had looked forward to massacring the Christians in Jerusalem, but he offered about half of them a safe conduct in exchange for their surrender of Jerusalem without further resistance. In most other instances Saladin was quite unchivalrous. Following the Battle of Hattin, for example, he personally participated in butchering some of the captured Knights Templars and Hospitallers and then sat back and enjoyed watching the execution of the rest of them. As told by Saladin’s secretary, Imad ed-Din: “He [Saladin] ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and Sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics; each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais; the unbelievers showed black despair.”11

According to Eller the Crusades accomplished nothing worthwhile in the long run:

Despite the fact that the Crusades accomplished nothing in the long run, other than alienating Muslims, their champion, the Catholic Church, continues to praise them to this day. The aforementioned Catholic encyclopedia speaks approvingly: “If, indeed, the Christian civilization of Europe has become universal culture, in the highest sense, the glory redounds, in no small measure, to the Crusades.”

First, the alienation of Muslims due to the Crusades is a recent phenomenon:

As Jonathan Riley-Smith explained: “One often reads that Muslims have inherited from their medieval ancestors bitter memories of the violence of the crusaders. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before the end of the nineteenth century Muslims had not shown much interest in the crusades . . . [looking] back on [them] with indifference and complacency.” Even at the time they took place, Muslim chroniclers paid very little attention to the Crusades, regarding them as invasions by “a primitive, unlearned, impoverished, and un-Muslim people, about whom Muslim rulers and scholars knew and cared little.” Moreover, most Arabs dismissed the Crusades as having been attacks upon the hated Turks, and therefore of little interest. Indeed, in the account written by Ibn Zafir at the end of the twelfth century, it was said that it was better that the Franks occupied the kingdom of Jerusalem as this prevented “the spread of the influence of the Turks to the lands of Egypt.”

Muslim interest in the Crusades seems to have begun in the nineteenth century, when the term itself was introduced by Christian Arabs who translated French histories into Arabic — for it was in the West that the Crusades first came back into vogue during the nineteenth century.12

Thus, current Muslim memories and anger about the Crusades are a twentieth-century creation, prompted in part by “post-World War I British and French imperialism and the post-World War II creation of the state of Israel.” It was the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire to rule with absolute authority, Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909), who began to refer to European Crusades. This prompted the first Muslim history of the Crusades, published in 1899. In the introduction, its author, Sayyid Ali al-Hariri, noted: “The sovereigns of Europe nowadays attack our Sublime Empire in a manner bearing great resemblance to the deeds of those people in bygone times [the crusaders]. Our most glorious sultan, Abdulhamid II, has rightly remarked that Europe is now carrying out a Crusade against us.”

This theme was eagerly picked up by Muslim nationalists. “Only Muslim unity could oppose these new crusades, some argued, and the crusading threat became an important theme in the writings of the pan-Islamic movement.” Even within the context of Muslim weakness in the face the modern West, Islamic triumphalism flourished; many proposed that through the Crusades the “savage West . . . benefited by absorbing [Islam’s] civilized values.” As for crusader effects on Islam, “how could Islam benefit from contacts established with an inferior, backward civilization?”

Eventually, the image of the brutal, colonizing crusader proved to have such polemical power that it drowned out nearly everything else in the ideological lexicon of Muslim antagonism toward the West — except, of course, for Israel and paranoid tales about the worldwide Jewish conspiracy.13

Second, it is not evident that the Crusades have not had some positive, lasting effects. Roland Bainton notes:

The crusades are commonly believed to have contributed, nevertheless, to European unity. Despite political fragmentation, medieval society from the Baltic to the Mediterranean became a corpus christianum, a respublic christiana. Very probably the crusades did aid by setting Christendom over against Islam. On the other hand, a greater weight is perhaps to be assigned to those peaceful processes by which the Church unified the west sufficiently to make possible a crusade. It may well be that the many instances of the avoidance of war by arbitration, in the Europe of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, were due to weariness and revulsion against the crusades.14

Thomas F. Madden says:

Whether we admire the Crusaders or not, it is a fact that the world we know today would not exist without their efforts. The ancient faith of Christianity, with its respect for women and antipathy toward slavery, not only survived but flourished. Without the Crusades, it might well have followed Zoroastrianism, another of Islam’s rivals, into extinction.

Crusading against the Enemy at Home

While some aims of the Crusades may be defensible there were many atrocities committed during the period. This section quickly covers wars against pagans and Christian heretics.

The Inquisition: Justice of the Cross

The Inquisition came about as a way to correct and punish Christian heretics, not non-Christians. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity were also tried in inquisitorial courts. Eller seems relatively accurate (to this layman) in this section but omits important contextual information.

In the midst of the Waldensian and Albigensian crises, the Church felt the need to establish some institutional measures to deal with heresy.

It should be remembered that the civil courts, like the courts of the pagan empire of old, viewed heresy as a form of treason against the state, punishable by death.15 The church became complicit in the violence of the state but it was not the only one to view heresy as problematic.

Based on the Roman legal concept of inquisitor or inquiry, suspected heretics were brought before one or more inquisitors, who called witnesses and conducted cross-examinations.

Note that the inquiry had Roman, not solely Christian, roots.

When a confession was not forthcoming, torture could be applied. Religious torture used exactly the same techniques as secular/legal/criminal torture. . . .

Keep in mind that the “use of torture was an ancient, common provision of Roman law, contrary to centuries of Christian legal usage but recently revived by the civil courts of the Holy Roman Empire.”16

In 1320, Pope John XXII authorized the Inquisition to expand its mission into investigations of witchcraft and sorcery, and theologians at the University of Paris in 1398 pronounced witchcraft and other forms of magic to be a type of heresy.

David Bentley Hart provides important additional information:

Nevertheless, it was the Catholic Church, of all the institutions of the time, that came to treat accusations of witchcraft with the most pronounced incredulity. Where secular courts and licentious mobs were eager to consign the accused to the tender ministrations of the public executioner, ecclesial inquisitions were prone to demand hard evidence and, in its absence, to dismiss charges. Ultimately, in lands where the authority of the church and its inquisitions were strong — especially during the high tide of witch-hunting — convictions were extremely rare. In Spain, for example, in the whole of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we have evidence of only two prosecutions going to trial. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the Catalonian Inquisition set the precedent (imitated by other inquisitions soon after) of arguing against all further prosecutions for witchcraft. In or around 1609, during an eruption of witch-hunting panic in Basque country, the Spanish Inquisition went so far as to forbid even the discussion of witchcraft; and more than once, in the years following, Iberian inquisitions were obliged to intervene when secular courts renewed prosecutions.17

Back to Eller:

In 1478, in the midst of the ongoing Spanish Catholic wars against the occupying Muslims or Moors, the crusading Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received permission from Pope Sixtus IX to operate an independent inquisition against Jews.

Once again, David Bentley Hart provides balance:

True, it was Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) who authorized the early Inquisition, but he did so under pressure from King Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504), who — with the end of centuries of Muslim occupation of Andalusia — were eager for any instrument they thought might help to enforce national unity and increase the power of Castile and Aragon. Such, however, was the early Inquisition’s harshness and corruption that Sixtus soon attempted to interfere in its operations. In a papal bull of April 1482, he uncompromisingly denounced its destruction of innocent lives and its theft of property (though he did not, admittedly, object in principle to the execution of genuine heretics). But Ferdinand effectively refused to recognize the bull, and in 1483 he forced Sixtus to relinquish control of the Inquisition to the Spanish thrones and to consent to the civil appointment of a Grand Inquisitor. The first man to wear this title was the notorious Tomas de Torquemada (1420-1498), a priest both severe and uncompromising, especially toward Christian converts (conversos) from Judaism and Islam whom he suspected of secret adherence to the teachings of their original faiths. Before he was finally reined in by Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), Torquemada was responsible for the expulsion of a good number of Jews from Spain and for perhaps two thousand executions of “heretics.” Even after Sixtus had surrendered his authority over the Inquisition, however, he did not entirely relent in his opposition to its excesses. In 1484, for instance, he supported the city of Teruel after it forbade the Inquisition entry — a revolt that Ferdinand suppressed the following year by force of arms. And Sixtus and his successor Innocent VIII (1432-1492) continued to issue sporadic demands that the Inquisition exercise greater leniency, and continued to attempt to intervene on behalf of the conversos when the opportunity arose. Over the next century, the Inquisition was often involved in the nauseating national politics of “blood purity,” limpieza de sangre, from which no one — not even a monk, priest, or archbishop — was safe. Within Spain itself, there was some resistance to the new Spanish racialism, none more honorable and uncompromising than that of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits. But from racialist harassments often only the papacy’s interventions could provide relief, however small or infrequent.18

Onward, Christian Soldiers

This section primarily covers Christian violence in Europe in the last 500 years (e.g., the Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years’ War). Eller does admit that politics and power also factored into the violence. He closes with this:

How far Christianity has come from its original assertion of peace and love, even if that assertion was more a matter of necessity than principle (Christians, as a weak minority, valorizing weakness and meekness). As Christianity attained power, it found clever arguments in support of its own vice and violence, perfecting the art of casuistry, the practice of specious or subtle reasoning for the purpose of rationalizing or misleading. To be sure, early Christians had models of “just war” provided by the ancients; all they had to add was specifically Christian justifications. But then, justice is in the eye of the beholder, and even more so, history has shown that “the greater the justice of my cause and the more violating a rule is necessary for my cause to prevail, the greater my justification in violating the rule.” Unfortunately, few people find anything more just, and therefore justifying, than their religion.

I’ve shown above that the first Christians were peaceful as a matter of principle. The bold section is an admission that the teachings of Christianity have to be ignored or re-worked to justify certain acts of violence (or perhaps a situation is misjudged).


  1. Sider, Ronald J. (2012-07-01). The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment (Kindle Locations 168-174). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
  2. Bainton, Roland H. Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960, p. 53. 
  3. Wynn, Phillip (2013-11-01). Augustine on War and Military Service (Kindle Locations 2366-2427). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. 
  4. Wynn 7245-7246 
  5. Wynn 7264-7283 
  6. Wynn 4793-4798 
  7. Wynn 7139-7148 
  8. Wynn 3904-3910 
  9. Wynn 4400-4411 
  10. Wynn 7166-7169 
  11. Stark, Rodney (2009-09-16). God’s Battalions (pp. 199-200). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 
  12. Stark 245-246 
  13. Stark 247-248 
  14. Bainton 116 
  15. David Bentley Hart. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Kindle Location 1074). Kindle Edition. 
  16. Hart loc. 1072-1073 
  17. Hart loc. 1084-1090 
  18. Hart loc. 1140-1152 

Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 4

Peter Boghossian writes chapter 4: Faith, Epistemology, and Answering Socrates’ Question by Translation. See my index of reviews for his book A Manual for Creating Atheists for more criticisms of his ideas.

According to the author, there is no way around the following three facts:

  1. Faith is an epistemology.
  2. In religious contexts, the term faith is used when one assigns a higher confidence value to a belief than is warranted by the evidence.
  3. Some people live their lives based upon their faith-based beliefs.

It is interesting that Boghossian says he will “flesh out” the first two facts because he certainly doesn’t provide a persuasive argument for them. At the end of the chapter he says that “[r]eason, rationality, honesty, authenticity, epistemic humility, and assigning confidence values in direct proportion to evidence take us toward the good life.” I don’t think he consistently displays these characteristics in the chapter.

The author provides a quick definition of knowledge as justified true belief:

Dating back to Plato’s Theaetetus, knowledge has been understood as Justified True Belief. That is, to say one knows P (a proposition), P needs to be justified (one needs sufficient evidence to warrant belief), true (P must lawfully correspond to reality), and believed (one’s verbal behavior needs to comport with one’s internal state in that one needs to believe what one claims to believe).

Later in the chapter he writes: “the word faith needs to be analyzed by how it’s used in a religious context and not by how its use has been rationalized for centuries.” The reader can be forgiven for expecting to see evidence for the first two alleged facts. No survey of how the word faith is used in the Christian tradition is provided. The first two propositions are not justified and are therefore not knowledge.

But Boghossian is aware of “sophisticated theologians” who will contest his propositions. He knows that they claim “there is adequate historical evidence and/or argument to warrant belief in propositions within their faith tradition.” The curious reader is warned that Christian scholarship is “too tedious, too disingenuous, and too corrupted by confirmation bias to deserve serious intellectual consideration.” This statement clashes with his call for epistemic humility and assigning confidence values in direct proportion to the evidence. A humble thinker might seriously consider the ideas of others. How can I be sure I’m assigning confidence values in direct proportion to the evidence if I don’t even seriously consider all the evidence?

Continuing on we read:

By sidestepping the entire corpus of Christian literature, which gives it the consideration it is due, one can examine what people mean when they use the word faith in a religious context and focus on truth claims as they relate to faith and faith-based epistemologies. Moreover, by bypassing historical sophistry and specious attempts to legitimize faith, we can avoid the well-rehearsed responses of Sophisticated Theologians.

Christian literature is replete with examples of how people use the word faith in a religious context, yet, somehow, we can examine what people mean when they use the word faith in a religious context by ignoring how people use the word faith in a religious context. Moreover, we can avoid changing our false beliefs when confronted with well-rehearsed responses.

Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 3

The late Victor Stenger (1935-2014) wrote chapter 3: The Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Christianity. I thought the chapter jumped from topic to topic in a rather haphazard way. Short assertions with few details or argument are common. I’ll try to focus on the main alleged incompatibilities between science and Christianity and the faulty foundations that may underlie this belief.

Faith is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence. No one disputes that religion is based on faith.

That may be one definition of faith but it is not the only one. The Christian apologist certainly disputes the claim that Christianity is based on this kind of faith. The apologist attempts to use evidence and reason to argue for the truth of Christianity. The fact that Stenger makes the blatantly false assertion that no one disputes that religion is based on faith calls into question his intellectual honesty and/or his competence.

We must distinguish faith from trust.

Christian faith in God is trust in God.

Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies. . . .

Neither religion nor Christianity is an epistemology.

Every human alive is aware of a world that seems to exist outside the body, the world of sensory experience we call the natural. . . . [A]ll major religions teach that humans possess an additional “inner” sense that allows us to access a realm lying beyond the natural world — a divine, transcendent reality we call the supernatural.

I’m not sure all major religions teach that man possesses an inner sense that allows us to access the supernatural. Regardless, defining the terms “natural” and “supernatural” is quite difficult. The “natural” is supposed to contain entities that atheists believe exist while the “supernatural” is supposed to contain entities that atheists don’t believe exist. But Stenger’s definitions don’t seem to divide entities into the proper categories. I can’t sense another person’s mind but the atheist considers the mind to be natural. The plagues on Egypt could be sensed but atheists would consider them supernatural events.

Moreover, Stenger’s definitions seem incoherent. Suppose we do have an inner sense that can sense the supernatural. Given the definition of natural as the world of sensory experience, this supernatural realm would also be natural for it can be sensed. God could be both natural and supernatural on these definitions.

The working hypothesis of science is that careful observation is our only reliable source of knowledge about the world.

Stenger equates science with scientism. We aren’t told how careful observation could ever allow us to conclude that careful observation is our only reliable source of knowledge about the world.

Natural theology accepts empirical science but views it as a means to learn about God’s creation. And so, religion in general goes much further than science in giving credence to additional sources of knowledge such as scriptures, revelation, and spiritual experiences that are not based on verifiable empirical evidence. This credence is never tested.

Nearly everyone, not just the religious, goes much further than science. We give credence to human testimony and reason, for example. If you want to know who won the football game yesterday you may ask someone else. That other person, not your own careful observation, is a source of knowledge. You might solve a math problem using reason. Scriptures, revelations, and spiritual experiences are all to be tested. They may or may not be tested scientifically, but they are to be tested using methods common to other areas of life.

The fact that science is limited doesn’t mean that religion or any alternative system of thought can or does provide insight into what lies beyond those limits.

Stenger seems to think the practical success of science is reason enough to believe it is a reliable source of knowledge. However, the same argument can be made using reason and testimony in place of science. The limits of science have nothing to do with reaching the conclusion that scientism is false.

We can solve the problems brought about by the misuse of science only by better use of science and more rational behavior on the part of scientists, politicians, corporations, and citizens in all walks of life. And religion . . . is not doing much to support the goal of a better, safer world.

At least Stenger is honest enough to admit that science can bring about problems. However, he makes implicit appeals to ethical standards. There are problems but we can work to make a better world. It is not at all clear how the author’s scientism is compatible with ethical realism. Ethics is not a branch of science and so is not a reliable source of knowledge about the world. Thus, it seems that the goal of an objectively better, safer world is impossible, for no world is objectively better than another. The religious, who are largely ethical realists, can at least speak coherently about a better, safer world.

Today science and religion find themselves in serious conflict. Even moderate Christians do not fully accept Darwinian evolution. Although they claim to see no conflict between their faith and evolution, they insist that God still controlled the development of life so humans would evolve. This is not at all what Darwin’s theory of evolution says. It’s intelligent design. There’s no role for God in evolution.

The theistic evolutionist is making a metaphysical and theological statement. When the scientist asserts that there is no role for God in evolution he stops acting as a scientist and starts to make a metaphysical claim of his own. Stenger, like many atheists, seems completely unaware that he is doing this.

[M]any fundamental Christian claims do not lie beyond the scope of science: they conflict with it. The virgin birth, miracles, prophecies, revelations, and the resurrection are just a few of these.

We are apparently just supposed to know how God performing a miracle is incompatible with God allowing nature to run its course. And earlier in the chapter the author admitted that if someone could predict an impending earthquake based on an “inner sense” this would be evidence for an extrasensory source of knowledge. Yet now we are told that prophecies conflict with science.

It was only with the revolts against established ecclesiastic authorities in the Renaissance and Reformation that new avenues of thought were finally opened up allowing science to flourish.

Stenger unwisely comments on history. As James Hannam notes in God’s Philsophers, scientific progress was being made before the Renaissance and Reformation.

Theists and quantum spiritualists claim that modern physics has replaced reductionism, which has marked physics and indeed all science from the time of Democritus, with a new holism in which a system cannot be understood by simply considering the interactions of its parts but must include additional principles of the whole. In fact the opposite is true. By the late seventies physics had returned to an even deeper reductionism than before with the standard model of particles and forces. The whole is still equal to the sum of its parts, and those parts are elementary particles — just as the Greek atomists said in the fourth century BCE. This is another place where scientific and religious thinking profoundly disagree.

Reductionism and its alternatives are philosophical positions. Science can inform this debate but it doesn’t decide it. Nor should anti-reductionism be equated with religion. It would be more accurate to say that people of differing religious commitments disagree over reductionism and its alternatives.

Until recent times it has been widely assumed that the human being possesses an immaterial “spirit” or “soul” that is responsible for thoughts, emotions, and conscious will. However, the evidence has become overwhelming that these all result from purely physical processes within the brain. While we still do not have a complete theory of what we call “mind,” we have no empirical reason to assume that it will require any immaterial elements.

There is a tension between saying we have overwhelming evidence that the mind results from purely physical processes within the brain and admitting that we don’t have a complete theory of mind. Those interested in why some people believe in an immaterial mind should look into the philosophy of mind. That’s a tangent I won’t be going down here.

Another important issue where fundamental disagreement between science and religion exists concerns the source and nature of morality. . . . [S]cientists are investigating morality . . . and coming up with discoveries that few believers will like. While a primitive morality can be found in animals and early humans that evolved biologically, our modern ideas of morality more likely evolved socially as humans found ways to overcome some of their animal instincts by force of intellect. Not only did these developments allow people to live together in some semblance of order, they also allowed us to use the ability to act cooperatively to obtain resources from the environment, to protect ourselves from predators, and so on. The incompatibility between science and religion becomes especially striking on the question of the origin of morality and ethical behavior.

This is as much detail as Stenger gives on science and morality. As with many parts of the chapter, it is too short to be convincing. Theists don’t doubt that we can reason about morality. In fact, since we believe reason can be a source of knowledge, we are actually consistent when we reason about morality. Stenger is inconsistent for he claims “careful observation is our only reliable source of knowledge about the world.” We are not told how careful observations give rise to morality.

A theocracy? In America? Most of my scientific colleagues in the comfort of their cluttered campus offices would scoff at the notion. But they need to be good scientists and look at the data.

I’ll leave it to the reader to make up his own mind on whether Stenger is following the data. I would bet good money that the U.S. will not become a theocracy in my lifetime. Strangely enough, the argument in this section might be the most detailed of the chapter.

Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 2

Chapter 2 is entitled “The Failure of the Church and the Triumph of Reason.” It is a reduced selection of Robert G. Ingersoll’s (1833–1899) “A Thanksgiving Sermon.”

The editor (Loftus) informs us that Ingersoll’s rhetoric is exaggerated in some places but he “seems to be largely spot on.” It is not reassuring to read that what follows “seems to be” spot on, especially when the editor has no expertise in history. Reading the chapter makes me think the rhetoric is more important than the truth.

In short, Ingersoll is thankful for the scientists, engineers, artists, and writers (“the worldly”) that came before him and created his world. But the church gets no thanks from Ingersoll for it is not responsible for anything useful. The only way this approach seems to make sense is to attribute the good to the worldly and never to the church. When a Christian scientist makes a discovery it is a point for the worldly, not for the church. The author admits that believers in the supernatural have done some good but says it is in spite of the belief in gods and devils, not because of it. But he is no position to make such a claim and is quite arrogant to think that he knows why a person really acts. A person can have a religious-scientific motive. It is not a case of one or the other.

This either/or thinking appears again near the end of the chapter. Ingersoll asserts that no scientist has ever persecuted, imprisoned, or harmed his fellow man. Apparently all the weapons of war required no scientific knowledge to create. Or, to put it another way, science gets credit for the good things but not for the bad things. If he had lived through the twentieth century we can imagine that Nazi medical experiments and the atomic bomb would not be credited to science.

A few other haphazard points can be made about the chapter. Ingersoll does not believe that Christ and the apostles added anything to the sum of useful knowledge. Now the Christian obviously believes that knowledge of God is useful knowledge, but you would think even a non-Christian could appreciate parts of the Christian faith.

He thinks Christ and the apostles did not say anything in favor of investigation, study, or thought. But the apostle Peter said to “always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess” (1 Peter 3:15). “The exhortation here is instructive, for Peter assumed that believers have solid intellectual grounds for believing the gospel. The truth of the gospel is a public truth that can be defended in the public arena.”1 The public defense of the gospel by the apostles is seen in the book of Acts. The Greek word apologia is translated “answer” in 1 Peter 3:15. Christian apologists began to write defenses of Christianity beginning in the second century and continue to do so down to the present day.

Strangely enough, Ingersoll looks down on Christian teachings against pride and luxury. I would expect if Christianity taught its followers to be prideful and embrace luxury that he, or plenty of other atheists, would denounce Christianity for that too. This is another indication of how the author is incapable of seeing any good from the church.

Despite being no more of an historian than Loftus, I still recognized three historical falsehoods in the chapter. First, Ingersoll falsely accuses the church of teaching a flat earth. In fact, the earth was known to be round before the birth of Christ and very few people in the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat.

With the exceptions of Lactantius and Cosmas, all major scholars and many vernacular writers interested in the physical shape of the earth, from the fall of Rome to the time of Columbus, articulated the theory that the earth was round. The scholars may have been more concerned with salvation than with geography, and the vernacular writers may have displayed little interest in philosophical questions. But, with the exception of Cosmas, no medieval writer denied that the earth was spherical — and the Catholic church never took a stand on the issue.2

[T]here is virtually no historical evidence to support the myth of a medieval flat earth. Christian clerics neither suppressed the truth nor stifled debate on this subject. A good son of the church who believed his work was revealing God’s plan, Columbus didn’t prove the earth was round — he stumbled on a continent that happened to be in his way.3

Second, Ingersoll falsely accuses the church of opposing dissection of the dead. In fact:

[M]edieval culture placed distinct limits on the acceptable treatment of human corpses, which dramatically restricted the number of cadavers available for dissection. But these limits reflected secular values of personal and family honor and ritual decorum and were enforced by local governments rather than by religious authorities.4

We have evidence of human dissection near the end of the thirteenth century. Autopsies were performed to determine the cause of death in the interests of criminal justice and public health. Around 1300 the Italian city of Bologna became home to dissections for medical research and teaching purposes. By the sixteenth century dissections were performed in universities and medical colleges across both Catholic and Protestant areas of Europe. Katharine Park writes: “I know of no case in which an anatomist was ever prosecuted for dissecting a human cadaver and no case in which the church ever rejected a request for a dispensation to dissect.”5

What got aspiring anatomists into trouble was grave robbing. But this was prohibited by both secular and ecclesiastical authorities.

The problem with dissection from the point of view of the inhabitants of late-medieval and Renaissance Europe was not that it was sacrilegious but that it was a gross dishonor to the individual and, more to the point, to his or her family. To be exhibited naked in front of a group of university students — augmented, in the sixteenth century, by local notables and visiting dignitaries — was a deeply shaming prospect, particularly since dissection rendered the body unsuited for a normal funeral, where the corpse was usually transported on an open bier. Conversely, families had no qualms about autopsies, which were becoming increasingly common in this period, since they were performed privately and left the body substantially intact for the funeral procession.6

Finally, Ingersoll falsely accuses the church of opposing the use of chloroform to alleviate pain during childbirth. Ether-based anesthesia was discovered in 1846. Obstetrician James Young Simpson quickly adopted it to relieve pain during childbirth. He wrote a pamphlet, primarily to medical professionals, arguing that the practice should not be opposed or rejected on religious grounds. Most theologians and clergy agreed with his pamphlet. “No evidence supports the notion that the opposition was widespread or orchestrated by organized Christianity.”7

A. D. Farr, a historian and physician who has conducted an exhaustive study of the matter, found only fleeting published evidence “either for theological opposition to anaesthesia from the institutional churches or of any widely held (or express) opposition on the part of individuals.” He concluded that “it is almost certain that Simpson’s pamphlet … was written to forestall objections which, in the event, did not arise, and that its publication has subsequently been mis-interpreted by other commentators as evidence for a non-existent opposition.” Whether one agrees with Farr’s conclusion regarding Simpson’s forethought or not, he was doubtless correct that organized religion in the United Kingdom mounted no formal attack on the use of anesthesia in childbirth.8

After the Civil War some organized opposition to the use of anesthesia in childbirth may have surfaced in the United States, as revealed by the fact that the American Medical Association in 1888 felt it necessary to dismiss “religious objections to obstetric anesthesia as ‘absurd and futile.'” But as in the United Kingdom, little or no evidence supports the claim that the church mounted a systematic or sustained attack; to the contrary, the record reveals that much of the religious and moral opposition arose among medical professionals themselves.9


  1. Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2003. Page 174. 
  2. Ronald L. Numbers. Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 362-365). Kindle Edition. 
  3. Numbers, loc. 379-381 
  4. Numbers, loc. 481 
  5. Numbers, loc. 509 
  6. Numbers, loc. 519 
  7. Numbers, loc. 1316 
  8. Numbers, loc. 1317 
  9. Numbers, loc. 1336 

Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 1

John Loftus writes chapter 1: Religious Violence and the Harms of Christianity. He addresses seven issues in a question-and-answer format.

(1) What is it about religion that instigates violence like nothing else?

In this section he summarizes, but does not really argue for, the views of Jack David Eller. Eller says there are six levels of conditions that make it increasingly possible for human beings to commit acts of violence (all beginning with the letter I). The first is an individual’s instincts to act violently. The second is integration into groups. The third is our identity as members of a particular group and our need to support and defend the group. The fourth is institutions to regularize the behavior of group members. The fifth is the interests of a group and the possibility that its interests will conflict with those of another group. The sixth is the ideology or worldview of the group. Then Eller claims that the six conditions converge on a single point: they provide the grounds for the lack of empathy towards other people outside the group. This lack of empathy can lead to violence since empathy provides a restraint against violence.

The summary is so generic that it is hard to know what to make of it. Nearly any human group could fulfill all six conditions. Yet Loftus, through Eller, asserts:

Although political movements can satisfy all six of these conditions, when it comes to religion, or a certain kind of religion, Eller claims that “no other form of human organization and mobilization is so shaped by its ideology.” In fact, he argues, “religion may be the ultimate ideology, since its framework is so totally external (i.e., supernaturally ordained or given), its rules and standards so obligatory, its bonds unbreakable, and its legitimization so absolute . . . no other social force observed in human history can meet those conditions as well as religion.” Religion, then, “can actually be the reason and the justification for actions that, without the religion, people would either condemn or would never contemplate in the first place” [Eller’s emphasis]. Continuing, Eller says, “In situations of authority, especially ‘ultimate’ authority like divine command, the normal human empathetic responses that prevent us from perpetrating injury are overridden. Individuals may not even ‘want’ to commit crimes and abuses, but they are commanded, and religious orders tend to trump individual objections.” While Eller candidly admits “not all religions are equally violent, and not all violent ones are violent in identical ways . . . without the religious ideology, some forms of violence and crime would be not only undoable but also unthinkable.”

This is, again, mainly assertion. It is not self-evident that religious organizations are shaped by their ideology more than, say, political organizations. It is not self-evident that a religious framework is any more external than, say, a moral framework. Likewise, the rules and standards of a moral framework are just as obligatory as the rules and standards of a religion. Surely the bonds of religion can be broken through apostasy. Nor is it self-evident that religious motives cause more violence than secular motives. Individuals living under tyrants might not “want” to commit crimes and abuses but they do so anyway. Political orders trump individual objections.

In conclusion, we are not provided a convincing argument that religion instigates violence like nothing else nor are we told what it is about religion (as opposed to politics, for example) that instigates said violence.

(2) Is religious violence worse than other kinds of violence?

In this section Loftus starts by summarizing the views of Hector Avalos. Avalos claims that religions are prone to violence because they fight over scarce resources that don’t exist or can’t be verified. These resources include: sacred space, exclusive revelations in holy scriptures, group privilege for the chosen people, and salvation by only one religion.

Once again we are given little in the way of argument. We are pointed to the book Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Even stranger is the fact that Loftus quotes an Amazon reviewer who wrote:

Simon’s aim has been to provide a comprehensive treatment. He has succeeded. Why has he done it? His family have been players in the conflicts.

The amount of murder, massacre etc for 2,000 years is appalling. Religious madness is the theme. Christians murdering Jews and being murdered and both murdering Muslims and being murdered in their turn.

WHY? Because Christ was crucified here, Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac here and Mohammed road a horse with a human face aerially around the city, receiving insights as he went. So the murders and massacres are about the places where religious events are believed to have taken place.

What is the answer to this 2,000 years of murder and massacre? BLow up the places!!!

If Jesus and Mohammed were alive now, they would agree that the places be blown up. For these are the cause of the massacres and murders! What matters are the messages of living at peace. Loving your neighbour as yourself.

Simon has not taken it forward so far. That is his error. That is all that matters.

William Scott

Loftus only quotes the bold section. One cannot help but note the irony of someone writing about religious violence pointing to an Amazon review that thinks blowing up holy places is the answer to violence. Not surprisingly this review was found helpful by only 11 of 198 people (as of this writing). I at least found it helpful in providing a good laugh.

In short, we are given little reason to believe religious violence is worse than other kinds of violence. Is being executed by a jihadist worse than being executed by an atheist?

(3) What other factors lead to religious violence?

Loftus continues by noting the opinions of the likes of Charles Kimball, John Shelby Spong, and Bertrand Russell. Assent to absolute truth, certainty in belief, blind obedience, attempts to create an ideal society, believing the ends justify the means, and believing one’s wars are holy are said to be factors that lead to religious violence. We are repeatedly told that more people have been killed in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.

The claim that religious institutions are more violent than secular institutions is hard to take seriously:

According to the Encyclopedia of Wars (Phillips and Axelrod, Facts on File, December 2004) of the 1,763 major conflicts in recorded history, only 123 of them were classified as having been fought over religious differences. That’s just under 7 percent. The encyclopedia also explains that the number of people killed in these conflicts amounts to only 2 percent.

The factors that are said to lead to religious violence can just as easily be factors that lead to secular violence:

The first, absolute truth claims, is a regular feature of the discourse of nation-states at war. As Kimball himself states, George W. Bush, while “determined to keep the ‘war on terrorism’ from descending into a conflict between Christianity and Islam,” invoked a “cosmic dualism” between good nations, led by the United States, and the forces of evil: “You had to align with the forces of good and help root out the forces of evil or be counted as adversaries in the ‘war on terrorism.'” Are not claims to the universal goodness of liberal democracy absolute truth claims? If not, what distinguishes them from being “absolute”?

The second warning sign, blind obedience, depends on the rather subjective adjective “blind.” Obedience is rigidly institutionalized for those whose job is to do violence on behalf of the nation-state. In the armed forces, there is, for example, no allowance for selective conscientious objection, that is, the individual soldier deciding on the basis of conscience that any particular war is unjust. Once inducted, the soldier must fight in any war his or her superiors deem necessary, and the soldier must fight as he or she is ordered. Is this blind obedience in the service of violence?

The remaining three warning signs also seem to apply to nationalism. The third warning sign, the establishment of an ideal time, is so broadly defined that “making the world safe for democracy” or Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” would seem to qualify. The history of modern warfare between nation-states is full of evidence of the fourth warning sign — the belief that the end justifies any means — from the vaporization of innocent civilians in Hiroshima to the practice of torture by over a third of the world’s nation-states, including many democracies. As for the fifth sign — the declaration of holy war — what counts as “holy” is unclear, but arguably the battle of good versus evil that President Bush believed his nation was leading would fit. Secular nationalism, then, would appear to exhibit — at times — all five of the warning signs.

Perhaps at this point Kimball would want to acknowledge the difficulties with claiming that religious ideologies have a greater tendency toward violence than do secular ideologies, and simply claim that his book is only meant to be about one side of the problem. In other words, “yes, secular ideologies can be violent too, but this is a book about how to deal with religious violence. Someone else can write a book about other types of violence.” This answer would be inadequate, however, for the very distinction between religious violence and secular violence is what needs to be explained and defended. Without such an explanation and defense, there is no reason to exclude putatively secular ideologies, as Kimball has done, from his analysis of absolutism, blind obedience, and the rest. If the five warning signs also apply to secular ideologies, why not frame the book as an analysis of the circumstances under which any institution or ideology becomes evil?1

(4) Is Christianity beneficial or harmful to society?

Loftus grants that Christianity has been of some benefit to Christian cultures (but not to non-Christian cultures). I agree with him that the fact that Christians have done some good is not a reason to conclude that Christianity is true. But the fact that Christians have done some evil is not a reason to conclude that Christianity is false. Loftus asserts: “What we wouldn’t expect is for a religion to cause as much harm as Christianity does, which is the major point of this book.” No reason is given for this expectation.

The author tells us that conservative or evangelical types of Christianity have caused a great deal of harm. That will be the focus of many chapters of the book. He claims:

To the degree that various kinds of Christianities have done good in the political, scientific, social, and moral spheres, it is not because of believers’ faith. Instead, the good done has followed from reasoning about how to solve real human problems and service real human needs.

This is a false dichotomy like the one between religious violence and secular violence. A Christian may do good deeds because of his faith and because of his reasoning abilities. If evils done by Christians are negatives against Christianity then it is only consistent to view the good deeds done by Christians as positives for Christianity. Loftus seems to be deploying the “heads I win, tails you lose” approach.

(5) Is Christianity beneficial or harmful to individual believers?

In this section Loftus states that there is no doubt in his mind that Christianity benefits the individual Christian living in a Christian culture (although he compares it to the placebo effect). Note that, only a few pages earlier, certainty was said to be a factor leading to religious violence. While it may be tempting to contact the police and have John locked up to prevent his impending violent outburst, I will use this blunder to note how the factors mentioned earlier in the chapter offer little in the way of explanation. A pacifistic atheist could conceivably match every factor leading to religious violence but not ever be likely to commit a single act of violence. Of course, the author also thinks Christianity can harm Christians because it is not true. Presumably later chapters will provide more details.

(6) Does Christianity cause more harm than good overall?

Loftus tells us that this book is not arguing that Christianity causes more harm than good. Rather the contributors believe atheism and a commitment to secular humanism would be better for the world. Nonetheless, Loftus himself believes Christianity probably causes more harm than good.

(7) What does this book attempt to show?

Loftus thinks we can evaluate the fruits of Christianity and thereby show that God is not the author of the Christian faith. A problem is that Loftus provides no independent ethical standard by which to judge Christians. He also fails to provide a sound argument for why wrongs committed by Christians show Christianity to be false. There is no promise in the Bible that Christians will be morally perfect.

Loftus ends his chapter by appealing to his tired outsider test for faith:

All that believers must do is test their religious faith from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism they already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject. With regard to Christianity, believers just need to honestly ask themselves if they would accept any other religion that had such a terrible track record. If they wouldn’t, then they should not continue identifying as Christians. It’s that simple.

If I thought Islam, say, was true but also had a violent history I would nonetheless become a Muslim. The track record of human beings is bloody. Nearly any belief, including atheism, could be connected with violence. Yet, in light of this, no one decides to hold no beliefs at all.


  1. Cavanaugh, William T. (2009-08-06). The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (p. 23-24). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. 

Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Foreword

In the foreword Hector Avalos summarizes the book:

Christianity Is Not Great swiftly demolishes one of the greatest and subtlest myths promoted by believers. The demolished myth is that Christianity, even if it cannot be proved to be true, has at least been good for the world. It has supposedly freed slaves and fostered science.

On the contrary, Christianity Is Not Great shows that Christianity has been bad for the world precisely because its ungrounded beliefs interfere with a realistic view of our world. Unrealistic views of the world cause unnecessary pain and suffering, and those views should be rejected. Furthermore, it is simply not true that Christianity deserves credit for freeing slaves, fostering science, and other positive developments that believers usually ascribe to this religion.

His [John Loftus] past anthologies have addressed the problems and flaws in Christianity’s arguments. This volume, while not neglecting those problems and flaws, concentrates on how Christianity harms some of our basic human institutions, such as politics, science, and our moral system.

It will be interesting to see if the authors can be even-handed. The term Christianity covers billions of people with many different beliefs. It may be possible, for example, for one form of Christianity to foster science and another form of Christianity to hinder science. Will the authors note this? Will they admit that Christianity has done at least some good? As with any large collection of human beings, there are good apples and bad apples within Christianity. Will the authors only focus on the bad apples or will they mention the good apples too?

What is Christianity being compared against? Atheism? Islam? In The Christian Delusion Avalos wrote: “As an atheist, I don’t deny that I am a moral relativist.”1 If moral relativism is true then there is nothing objectively bad about slavery and there is nothing objectively good about science. In other words, it is simply not possible to show that Christianity is objectively good or bad for the world because there is no such thing as objective goodness or badness.

Also in the foreword, Avalos writes:

The anthologies John Loftus organizes show the vitality and comprehensive intellectual approach to atheism as a way of life. That comprehensive critique of religion, and defense of the atheist worldview, is one of the hallmarks of what is called the New Atheism.

One cannot help noting the contradiction between Avalos’s moral relativism and the purpose of the book he is writing the foreword to. His “atheism as a way of life” seems to involve endorsing a book that, on his “atheist worldview”, cannot possibly succeed in its aims. This is not a consistent way of life; it is an incoherent way of life.

To be fair, it should be noted that not all atheists are moral relativists nor do I know how many contributors to Christianity Is Not Great would describe themselves as moral relativists. My problem is with a moral relativist telling me something is good or bad. If you don’t believe in objective good and bad then don’t pretend otherwise.


  1. p. 232 

Review: Christianity Is Not Great

When I heard John Loftus had published another book, I had no intention of reading it, let alone reviewing it. Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails did not sound like a book that would touch on the truth of Christianity (my primary interest) and, based on the table of contents, most of the subjects would be better covered by other authors (i.e., actual experts in a given field).

However, the book found its way across my desk and my curiosity got the better of me. But, as of this writing, my interest in the book has waned. I’ve written reviews of the foreword and the first five chapters. I may as well publish them now since I don’t know if I will read and review the rest of the book.

  • Foreword by Hector Avalos
  • Introduction by John W. Loftus
  • Chapter 1: Religious Violence and the Harms of Christianity by John W. Loftus
  • Chapter 2: The Failure of the Church and the Triumph of Reason by Robert G. Ingersoll
  • Chapter 3: The Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Christianity by Victor J. Stenger
  • Chapter 4: Faith, Epistemology, and Answering Socrates’ Question by Translation by Peter Boghossian
  • Chapter 5: Love Your Enemy, Kill Your Enemy: Crusades, Inquisitions, and Centuries of Christian Violence by David Eller
  • Chapter 6: Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live: The Wicked Christian Witch Hunts by John W. Loftus
  • Chapter 7: They Will Make Good Slaves and Christians: Christianity, Colonialism, and the Destruction of Indigenous People by David Eller
  • Chapter 8: The Slave Is the Owner’s Property: Christianity and the Savagery of Slavery by John W. Loftus
  • Chapter 9: Christianity and the Rise of American Democracy by Richard Carrier
  • Chapter 10: The Dark Ages by Richard Carrier
  • Chapter 11: The Christian Abuse of the Sanctity of Life by Ronald A. Lindsay
  • Chapter 12: The Gender Binary and LGBTI People: Religious Myth and Medical Malpractice by Veronica Drantz
  • Chapter 13: Christianity Can Be Hazardous to Your Health by Harriet Hall, MD
  • Chapter 14: Christianity and the Environment by William R. Patterson
  • Chapter 15: Doth God Take Care for Oxen?: Christianity’s Acrimony against Animals by John W. Loftus
  • Chapter 16: The Christian Right and the Culture Wars by Ed Brayton
  • Chapter 17: Woman, What Have I to Do with Thee?: Christianity’s War against Women by Annie Laurie Gaylor
  • Chapter 18: Secular Sexuality: A Direct Challenge to Christianity by Darrel W. Ray
  • Chapter 19: The Crazy-Making in Christianity: A Look at Real Psychological Harm by Marlene Winell and Valerie Tarico
  • Chapter 20: Abusive Pastors and Churches by Nathan Phelps
  • Chapter 21: “Tu Quoque, Atheism?” — Our Right to Judge by Jonathan MS Pearce
  • Chapter 22: Only Humans Can Solve the Problems of the World by James A. Lindsay
  • Chapter 23: Living without God by Russell Blackford