How to intelligently criticize religion

How to Intelligently Criticize Religion: Atheist claims that are no better than Theist claims.

One of the most common criticisms of the religious is that they argue from poor information. Whether it’s cherry-picked, made-up, out of context (yes, sometimes things actually do require context!), or just flat-out wrong, this is a frequent tactic used by ill-informed faithful when trying to argue for their position. Sometimes, the person doing the arguing doesn’t even realize their facts are wrong, but we atheists certainly seem to agree they should take the time to get the facts straight before they whip out some hum-dinger of fiction like it’s an RPG.

I hate to be the one to say this, but atheists do this all the time, too, and it drives me nuts. We are the ones arguing reason, facticity, rationality, and critical thinking. For our side to trot out the same tired old tropes is doubly damning. We, by our own rhetoric, should know better. Therefore, I am entering the fray to set straight some of the biggest boo-boos atheists make in criticizing Christianity.

“Religion stifles knowledge; after all, the church taught that the earth was flat.”

Religion can stifle knowledge, for sure, and there are loads of examples of that. But not this one, because they didn’t.  The earth as a sphere was postulated by Greek philosophers as early as the 6th C. BCE, and proven in the 3rd C. BCE by Eratosthenes, among others. There is nothing in the Roman inheritance of Greek ideas to suggest they doubted this, and in fact, the idea of a spherical earth spread throughout most known civilizations by the 1st C BCE or so. It remained the central theory, despite a few early Christian theologians who took the Hebrew scriptures as reason to doubt it. Of these, the most famous would likely be Athanasius, who was otherwise a brilliant thinker, but whose insistence on a flat earth remained eccentric, and was never widely accepted. In the Middle Ages, the Church’s position remained that the earth was spherical, as evidenced by the works of the Venerable Bede, Thomas Aquinas, and Hildegarde of Bingen to name only a few. The whole thesis of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy revolves around (no pun intended) a spherical earth, and Dante was nothing if not orthodox relative to Church doctrine. Incidentally, the Islamic world likewise inherited the spherical earth from the same classical sources. 

The idea that former ages, most notably the medieval period, believed in a flat earth is the mythical product of 19th century historiographical tradition. Much like the lurid accounts of the Inquisition exaggerated that phenomena all out of historical proportion (more on that below), the same tradition supposed that medievals thought the earth was flat. Overall, they went to great lengths to exaggerate the ‘backwardness’ of the ‘dark ages.’ In part, this is owed to the Enlightenment and the shift towards scientific thought in opposition to religion, in part this is due to the Protestant ‘propaganda’ campaign against the Catholic Church. In other words, such a myth arose out of much the same sentiment that encourages its propagation today – the admirable desire to reject a dark and superstitious past in favor of a new age of reason. However, it’s still wrong.

It is also the case that in the Middle Ages in particular, the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge rested almost entirely with the Church. Secular universities were not a thing until well into the 14th C., meaning the whole of the 12th C. Renaissance took place within and thanks to the cathedral schools and monasteries. We have dozens of manuscripts showing passionate and meticulous investigation of the natural world throughout the Middle Ages, and the Church was, in fact, the primary funder of all kinds of learning and teaching. Even a cursory survey of medieval Christianity will show a celebration and appreciation for the natural world, and a genuine hunger to understand it. Unique in the history of Christian theology, the Christianity in the Middle Ages revolved around the principle that reason, instead of conflicting with faith, could and should inform it, and a faith that was not build on a firm foundation of reason was worthless. The later Middle Ages and the Renaissance did occasionally regress, but that regression was typically fueled as much by the Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric than any inherently religious motive. After all, if the Catholic Church was the primary source of education, the Protestant was all but obligated to oppose such education as only more ‘popery’ to be rejected at all costs. We see ample evidence of this in the doctrinal positions of many of the founders of Protestantism. But not until the colonial era was any kind of universal repression of knowledge or learning a program of the Church, and even there it was sporadic, and motivated less by religion than by racism.

“In the Middle Ages, the church burned millions of heretics, including anyone who didn’t agree with everything they said.”

Well, yes, the Inquisition did investigate heresy. The Inquisition was founded to “inquire” into (from the same root as our term ‘inquest’), or investigate heresy where it occurred. In the vast majority of cases, especially during its first couple centuries when it was under the direct control of the papacy, its primary aim was convincing heretics to turn back to the proper path. This was done by discussion, ‘exhortation,’ and often education. Remember, we have a low literacy rate, so people came to understand their faith from whoever preached it where they lived. Typically just correcting misunderstandings was enough.

Yes, we can quibble about the appropriateness of a central entity controlling the beliefs of individuals all you like, and I’ll address that in a moment. First the facts. In its first century (give or take), the Papal Inquisition followed a far milder process of jurisprudence than did the secular courts of its day, who employed torture as a matter of course, even for freely confessing offenders. The Church forbade the use of torture by the Inquisition for decades, and when they did capitulate under outside pressure, then only allowed it under strict and narrow conditions. Harsh, yes, but a more enlightened approach than the secular courts. Similarly, the Inquisition’s rules of evidence and testimony were far more rigorous and protective of the accused that the secular courts, and their conviction rates, to say nothing of execution rates, were drastically lower. Inquisitors (and we have extensive documentation from many) might go a lifetime and pass severe sentences on no more than 5 or 10 out of thousands; far less than the horror stories we hear would lead us to believe.

Where the Inquisition did become significantly more brutal was in Spain, where it became a demented project of Ferdinand and Isabella (yes, the same monarchs whom we praise for funding Columbus). The two Spanish monarchs desired a fully Christian kingdom. Upon ascending the throne, they decreed that all Jews and Muslims must either convert or leave Spain. The vast majority of those being peasants lacking the wherewithal to leave, most converted or pretended to. The Spanish Inquisition, under Ferdinand and Isabella, and directed most famously by Torquemada, was turned wholly against ‘false’ or reverted converts.

It was here that torture became more prevalent, and numbers of executed began to rise. However, even the Spanish Inquisition’s tenure accounted for no more than about three thousand lives over an almost 150 year run;a far cry from the ‘millions’ so often bandied about. The inquisition in Spain was repeatedly censured by a Papacy at the time barely able to control events in its own curia, and utterly unable to exercise any control over events in Spain. But Spain’s Inquisition was not approved by the Church.

Certainly we would say that any lives taken in the name of religion, or the ‘wrong religious belief’ are too many. However, we must recognize that our acknowledgment of this is entirely a product of modern, post-enlightenment thinking. It is ludicrous to hold people in the Middle Ages to the same standard; ideas like freedom of religion, pluralism, or individual rights as we understand them simply didn’t exist then. It makes as much sense to blame people for not thinking in these terms as it does to blame them for not administering antibiotics to their children – the tools did not exist. For them, religion and the fabric of society were one and the same, and the concern for those who might get it wrong and suffer eternally was actual, genuine concern for the well-being of others. Hard as that is to understand today, it is a fact of history.

Secondly, we must distinguish between the true numbers and the “untold millions” spoken of today. The Inquisition was an attempt to save those who were understood as having fallen into error. In that respect, yes, it is an example of oppression by current definitions. But it was not the murderous, bloodthirsty reign of terror as it has been described. The same historiographic tradition that promoted the flat earth myth, promoted this exaggeration as well, building on the anti-Catholic propaganda circulated by the (at least as oppressive, if not more so) 16th C. Protestant Reformation. Layer on a few decades of Enlightenment anti-religionism, and a dollop of Romantic literary leanings (the original source of the gothic genre) and you have a medieval period set in a lurid and nightmarish landscape that history simply does not support.  Certainly, the Inquisition stands as an example of the dangers of religious thinking. However, if we are to critique the Church’s history, let’s be sure we are clear on what it actually is.

“The church executed Galileo for saying the earth revolved around the sun.”

Actually, the Church did not execute Galileo. They didn’t even censure him at first. Initially, his strongest opposition came from his fellow astronomers. When he presented his ideas, the initial opinion of the Church was that his work seemed entirely orthodox. Nevertheless, they asked him to hold off publishing it until they could look it over. Galileo, however, grew impatient, and published his work anyway, despite having signed a binding contract not to. He was arrested for breach of contract. Once Galileo had forced the issue, the Church was prepared to allow the possibility of his theories, but not grant them full factual status until they made their own study of his work. (Like it or not, it was essentially the late medieval form of the peer review.) Had Galileo quit there, he would have been fine. However, Galileo responded with a treatise defending his ideas which included a scathing personal critique of the Pope. He was arrested again, and accused of being “vehemently suspected of heresy” at which point, he hastily and under virtually no duress, recanted. He was placed under house arrest, and spent the rest of his days living in considerable luxury under that house arrest, with his later work undisturbed and even funded by the Church. Again, this may seem barbaric to our modern sensibilities, but for the standard of his day, Galileo was downright coddled. Certainly, he was never the brave and stalwart champion of science we like to imagine, ruthlessly persecuted by a vicious and backwards church, another misconception we can safely attribute to the 19th century.

“The Crusades were a massive land/power/money grab by the church, launched against a peaceful and enlightened Islamic culture”

It is true that the culture of the Islamic world in the Middle Ages had some real advantages over Western Christian culture at the time. Supremacy of sophistication in areas like medicine, mathematics, early sciences, and some literary areas certainly do belong to the Islamic world. But that’s about as far as this claim can go. In purely military matters, both sides were equally brutal, and equally likely to commit acts of violence and bloodshed that are truly shocking to us today. Massacres of innocents, torture, exceptionally cruel forms of execution, and general brutality were evenly distributed.

In terms of the Crusades as a power grab or quest for plunder, we have no evidence that this was the case, and plenty to suggest otherwise; many people impoverished themselves and their families in order to participate in what they truly believed was a noble defense of their way of life. While one cannot say Christendom fought a purely defensive war, nether was it purely offensive. From its inception in the late 8th century, Islam spread like wildfire throughout the southern Mediterranean. What began as a small movement among a largely fragmented Arabic people, had in under two centuries spread (rarely by peaceful means), to encompass not only the Middle East, but much of North Africa, most of Spain, and parts of Southern France to the west, and large swatch of Asia Minor reaching nearly to the doorstep of Constantinople to the east.

By 1000, over half of what had been the Roman Empire was dominated by Islamic caliphates. And they had not stopped or even slowed their expansion in the 11th century. It was in part the advancing Islamic conquest towards Constantinople that set off the Crusades. The other proximate cause involved a sudden change in Islamic policy towards Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. For the majority of Islam’s first two centuries, relations with Christendom had been cordial. Both Christians and Jews living in the Levant had been mostly left to themselves, and pilgrims were welcomed. However, in a sudden and unexpected move in 1009, the Fatamid Caliph Al-Hakim desecrated the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and suddenly began persecuting Christians in Muslim lands. This, together with the steady advancement into Christian lands makes the Crusades at least a moderately defensive war.

“The bible teaches that all people came from two men, Cain and Abel.” Or “…from Cain and Abel and their sisters/mother – incest!”

It’s easy to conclude this if, like most Christians (as we are so fond of pointing out), you haven’t actually read the book. However, the text itself makes no claims that Adam and Eve were the ONLY humans present in the beginning. There are several places where Genesis refers to other humans besides those Yahweh created. Part of this comes from the textual problem of taking creation myths from one source, and grafting them onto tribal origin stories from other sources. Most of these myths began as tribal origin stories, not as world creation myths. The Old Testament in particular reads more like an anthology of late neolithic and early bronze age myths than a cohesive myth artifact from a single culture. It is to be expected that they would contradict. Understanding this is key to critiquing it intelligently.

First off, when Cain is marked by God, it is so that no one who sees him will kill him. So far, we only have Adam, Eve, and Cain (and in some versions, a third brother, Seth). Clearly this tells us there are other people around, otherwise, for whom is this mark intended? He is banished from his family, so it must be for the benefit of other people. However, marking of a criminal or outcast so that other tribes would not kill him was a common practice in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Secondly, Cain goes off to the ‘land of Nod’ and finds a wife and builds a city. Now unless Cain grabbed an as yet unborn sister before leaving home, and unless he’s a loon who builds a city in the middle of nowhere just for himself, there are clearly other people out there, and they are referenced in the text of the Bible. Once again, there are plenty of absurdities in the Bible without having to harp on those that actually aren’t there. Besides, this case offers a lovely example of how little many theists really know about their sacred book…