I am often accused of fighting a battle that’s already been conceded with organised religion. In fact, this is the criticism levelled at many anti-religious thinkers: basically, that we’re beating a dead horse. Religion has moved on from its horrible past. In its current form, it’s something altogether more complex and intricate. So why spend time putting new bullets into an old corpse?
Unfortunately, the corpse is not really dead, is it? As recently as a month ago, there was a fanatical, right-wing Christian within spitting distance of running for the White House. There is still one in the White House. The Catholic Church continues to condemn countless thousands to the misery of life with parents who don’t want them. And that’s just off the top of my head.
So I present here a short and incomplete list of Christianity evils. Why them? Simply put, because the relative success of Mike Huckabee puts a chill in my bones. In 2008, this shouldn’t be possible. But it goes on. So it feels like it’s time to remind ourselves of all the madness this particular religion has brought into the world. Just so we can keep ourselves on course.
In no particular order:
1. The Crusades
What fun it was for the church to exist in a time where it could behave exactly as it pleased, as the highest authority on Earth. Starting in 1095, Pope Urban II called on European Christians to raise a defence against Turkish invaders into the Byzantine Empire. From this point until roughly 200 years later, amateur Christians and soldiers alike — all with the church’s blessing — conducted massacre after massacre against Muslims, Jews and anyone else who was regarded as an “unbeliever”.
Stories about the atrocities abound. A bishop is said to have commented that “the impaled heads of slain Muslims [are] a joyful spectacle for the people of God”, for example. Or how about when a chronicler of the day, called Fulcher of Chartres, wrote that “… the Franks did nothing evil to them [the women] except pierce their bellies with their lances”. And so it continues.
The enmity, even hatred, caused by these many years of appalling behaviour led directly to the troubled relations between Christians and Muslims, and Christians and Jews, that have arguably been in place ever since. And hardly a wonder.
It seems trivial to make the point that people wandering around talking about peace, neighbourly love and “thou shalt not murder” should be the last ones to be cutting off other people’s heads and putting them on pikes and waving a cross over the whole operation to give it divine blessing. But there you have it.
You may say that I’m covering material here that is already worn through. But the same religion that ordained this stuff is present with us today. The same religious books, the same beliefs, the same church hierarchy (at least within Catholicism). So we cannot just forgive and forget.
2. Burning of witches
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18)
This little gem of tolerance and compassion supported the decision to murder somewhere in the order of 60 000 innocent people, mostly women, during the 14th and 15th centuries. Rather than an organised campaign by the church, like the Crusades, witch burning was, in fact, a phenomenon fuelled by the culture of Christianity itself. While the church ultimately assisted in trying and burning people alive, it was often ordinary, country folk who took to the burnings most enthusiastically.
One could argue, of course, that just like the so-called “witch-hunts” of the modern era such as McCarthyism or the current persecution of anyone looking vaguely Muslim, this was more just crowd behaviour than religion at work. However, Christians are keen to point out that we owe our moral backbone to their religion; that, criticise the church if you will, Christianity per se instils people with a selfless, pious, benevolent disposition.
Tell that to the independent women of Europe who were set alight while still alive because they had a strange birthmark or were denounced by some other miserable wretch trying to escape her own punishment.
3. Enforced ignorance and cultural suppression
Whether it was the control of knowledge and education during the so-called “Dark Ages”, the persecution of early scientists like Galileo because he uncovered some inconvenient truths, or the burning of The Beatles’ albums, the history of Christianity is littered with attempts by the church and ordinary Christians to keep knowledge and culture under their control.
Simply put, Christianity hates facts and hate science. Only under conditions of absolute duress and faced with evidence so overwhelming that it cannot be denied will it concede what has been blindingly obvious to everyone else. Even in these circumstances it can take a while. Galileo was eventually pardoned by Pope John Paul II — in 1992. And he generously conceded that the Earth was, in fact, not stationary and did go round the sun. From which point all Catholics were presumably free to start answering their grade-one science questions properly at last.
If Catholicism has been evil, the charismatic churches of this persuasion and that, along with the lunatics of cults like “Christian science”, appear to be just downright determined to misinform. Spread across the internet are site after site of cogent and diligent arguments against evolution, the age of the Earth, stem-cell research and just about any other scientific fact against which anyone dare mount an argument. By now, of course, that excludes trying to prove that the Earth is flat and doesn’t go around the sun because, well, even the most devout wouldn’t go near those any more.
But the pattern here is clear. The church (whichever one) wants control over not only the lives, but also the actual minds of its followers. One of the clearest expressions of this is control of knowledge. And one of the clearest expressions of that is its endless war with the sciences. It’s obvious why, of course. Because science seeks to explain those — nature and the universe. And those old men wafting around the desert in the Middle East dressed in sheets and waving sticks in the air were pretty far off the truth of things, as it turns out. So what are you going to do? Apologise like the pope did? Or dig in and try to fight it out?
Into this often embarrassing battle has waded the “intelligent design” crowd, who have sought to have the creation story inserted into the American education system as a viable alternative to evolution and natural selection. So far, they have been stopped. Praise the Lord.
4. Sexuality and contraception
Of all the evils the Christian religion has committed, ruining the sexual lives of millions of people has to rank close to the top. The guilt and embarrassment that children are made to feel about their sexuality, and the sexuality of others, has led to a large community of repressed and dangerous adults. The horrific recent molestation scandals inside organised churches are just one symptom of this.
Extend this to the fanatical attempt to prevent contraception — going as far as to preach in some cases that condoms actually cause disease — that has led not, in fact, to regulated sexuality, but instead to large numbers of unwanted children. The church would like the world to thank it for caring for orphans and the poor, as it no doubt does, but it has at least in part created the problem to begin with. If it had a sensible view of abortion and contraception, many people would have been spared the misery they have endured, and will continue to endure until some pope or archbishop or pastor wakes up to the thundering tide of reason that all the yelling up to Christ can do nothing to stop.
5. Support of evildoers
There are many people who have carefully analysed the connection between the church and Hitler during World War II, as well as many other similar atrocities. I want to mention here two less publicised cases: that of the Dutch Reformed Church in apartheid South Africa, and the case of Wenceslas Munyeshyaka of Rwanda.
The Dutch Reformed Church was pretty much the official church of the apartheid regime. Not only did it spread the word about the governing principles of apartheid, but it also endorsed the whole programme as God’s will. Sunday after Sunday, the faithful Afrikaner flock would listen to preachers telling them they were a superior race. And this belief translated into a horrific political and social system of which we are all the victims today. Again, this is one specific church. But how does a religion that is supposedly filled with such moral goodness get perverted this much? They were all reading the same Bible.
Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka is someone I am particularly interested in. Found guilty of being one of the ringleaders of the Rwandan genocide, the Catholic Church actually rescued the bastard from Rwanda and sent him to France where he has enjoyed their protection ever since. He was re-arrested late last year and now being passed around between the French and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Hopefully he will shortly receive what’s due to him.
At which point, no doubt, someone will apologise again for the error of supporting a mass murderer simply because he waved around a Bible.
At which point they will move on to some other ultimately indefensible position on something else.
This is a very incomplete list. But my points are two: first, that Christianity, as well as the practice and institutions thereof, is no guarantee of doing good. In fact, it seems to breed evil quite nicely, thank you very much. And secondly, that Christianity owes us more than an apology. It’s a failed project that has been kept alive by ignorance and manipulation of power, and greed. Its reign must, and will, end.