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 

5 thoughts on “Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 2

  1. If you read pertinent parts of this:

    You will find that there were some objections, but some have said this came not so much from the clergy but from religious views within the medical discipline itself.


    ” In fact, as examination of the
    book that was the subject of Douglas Bacon’s Blessed Chloroform Lecture
    shows, there was much opposition on religious grounds, but from the medical
    profession, not the clergy; and it was tackled not by Simpson alone, but also by
    Prothero Smith of Bart’s. Unfortunate too was the unawareness of those authors
    to whose studies it would have been relevant, of the existence of a student’s
    notebook recording Simpson’s 18487-1849 lecture course, a crucial year for the
    exposition of his views on both anaesthesia and puerperal sepsis, now in the
    library of the AAGBI, but written up in the British Journal of Anaesthesia as
    long ago as 1976. “

  2. Jonathan MS Pearce:

    An interesting read:

    It agrees with what I wrote when it states: “During the early Church period, the spherical view continued to be widely held, with some notable exceptions.”

    In the quote given, Lactantius makes a scientific argument against a spherical heaven and earth, not a theological argument.

    Augustine merely doubted that the Antipodes were inhabited by men. The quote provided from him is somewhat unclear. Why does he think the sun rises in the southern hemisphere (as opposed to the western hemisphere) when it sets for “us”? What does he mean by “historical knowledge”? If he means that no man from the northern hemisphere has confirmed with his own eyes that men live in the southern hemisphere then he has a point. They couldn’t just assume the southern hemisphere was inhabited. (Aside: There is relatively little land mass below the equator in the Old World. Who was the first man from the northern hemisphere to knowingly visit the southern hemisphere or vice versa?) He does say that Scripture gives no false information and I understand this to mean that he believes Scripture is correct when it says all men are descended from the first man. If this understanding is correct, then he appears to think it is absurd that some men could have traversed the ocean to inhabit the Antipodes. He seems to have underestimated man’s sailing capabilities and how far south Africa goes.

    Wikipedia alleges that John Chrysostom taught that the Earth floats on the waters. Following the links to his homily makes the matter less clear for Chrysostom also quotes Scripture saying the Earth hangs upon nothing and that this statement is in agreement with the statement that the foundations of the Earth are upon the seas. It seems possible that Chrysostom is making a point other than that the Earth literally rest upon water. Plus, it is possible for a spherical earth to rest on something else (e.g., a golf ball resting on a tee). According to historian of science James Hannam, “St John Chrysostom thought the heavens were a box rather than a sphere, but he never says the earth is not a sphere in the centre of the box.”

    Wikipedia states that Athanasius the Great holds the same position as Chrysostom. Yet if we follow the links to his actual words he seems to believe that the earth is set upon the realm of waters and that it is in the center of the universe. I’m not convinced that makes him a flat-earther.

  3. i didn’t say it didn’t disagree, though I think Augustine’s views were important. As in the article, there was a prevailing tendency for many towards a disc rather than sphere. Sources are sparse for sure.

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