From the archives: The crypto inquisitors

Here’s a fairly old post (originally published May 2009) that I stumbled across while trying to find things I’d written in the past about Galileo. I’m republishing it here just because, rereading it, I decided I really liked it.

There’s a really creepy theme I’ve been noticing in Christian apologetics: an apologist will set off with an official mission to, say, show that Christianity is not responsible for the Inquisition. But as you read the argument, you begin to get the feeling he thought the inquisition was a fine idea.

Here’s how it works: if the topic of the day is persecution of dissenting sects of Christianity, you’ll hear about the threat of heresy to the social order. If the topic is what the Inquisition did to the Jews of Spain, you hear about how the Inquisition only targeted Jews who pretended to convert to Christianity, so they could avoid getting expelled from the country. If the topic is Galileo, we are told that the idea that the Church was opposing science is a slander against Christianity, and Galileo was really being punished for either insulting the Pope or trying to interpret Scripture for himself (yeah, that’s so much better).

What’s most disturbing, of course, is when the apologists express their contempt for modern democracy in a fairly direct way by implying that it’s worthless, or that whatever its worth, Christians may soon be justified in going back to burning heretics. J.P. Holding, for example (first link), says “The Inquisition’s actions would be excessive today because we have the leisure to tolerate dissent with no threat to our survival” adding a disturbing “not as yet, at any rate.” Most recently, I came across David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions, which tries to blame Hitler and Stalin not on atheism but on modern notions of liberty, which are described as “banal” and “degraded,” with religious and political freedom–i.e. the right to vote and not be killed for your thoughts–as being no more significant than getting a choice of shoes.

As far as I’ve seen, no one’s really commented on this, and I didn’t really feel the need to comment until I encountered Hart’s extreme dismissals of modern liberty just recently. Why haven’t other atheist bloggers noticed this before? And could the apologists really be too stupid to notice that this kind of rhetoric is risky? The mysteries of life…

  • smrnda

    Perhaps the reason is at heart, many Christians are just rampant authoritarians who link everything good to the idea of a rigid hierarchy, and everything bad to anything else.

    I don’t know who they think they will persuade with this nonsense, given that as societies become more democratic and recognize more and more individual rights they tend to get better and better, both morally and in terms of standard of living (and if your morals don’t get you a better standard of living, what good are they?)

    Knocking the idea of liberty seems like an intellectual exercise that only people with a comfortable level of liberty who are in no danger of losing it could even waste time with – anybody living in a society that didn’t have these things, provided that societies that did existed, would understand very clearly what they were missing. It’s like people who think life would be better under some kind of feudalism or with less technology – I doubt they would really want what they’re asking for, but since it’s not likely to happen they can speculate about it. It’s something these clowns can wish for only because they can’t get it, since if they did, they might be the next heretics to be executed over some trivial dispute about dogma.

    The other thing is that as life on earth gets better and better, religion’s “pie in the sky” becomes less and less of a selling point. Perhaps these people realize how much better religion would do if life was bleak and miserable, since there would exist no alternative sources of hope.

    • http://www.seditiosus.blogspot.com Schaden Freud

      You make really good points here, and I think you pretty much sum up the fantasy land some of these folks live in.

      I’ve wondered myself how such people expect to pursuade others, but I doubt they really have a concept of “pursuasion” in the sense that you or I understand that term. Authoritarians believe things because they’re told to by an authority figure, not because they’ve assessed the facts. The idea of checking sources and seeking other opinions and then weighing the evidence on its merits is something many authoritarians don’t quite grasp. They don’t expect others to do it, and they don’t fully understand why we do it. As a result they can be genuinely quite nonplussed when we demand sources. That’s when they trot out some variation on “you just have to have faith.”

      • smrnda

        Something I missed may be that Christians, particularly Calvinists, have a strong belief in original sin an te fall; they assume things *must* have been better in the good old days and that we’ve declined from some golden age, and that however things used to have been done must be better. The whole notion of ‘progress’ is anathema to these people, though for the rest of us its pretty obvious because our image of the past is based on history instead of mythology.

  • Patrick

    The one that always weirds me out is when the apologist happily owns the Canaanite genocide, but is UTTERLY OUTRAGED that you would attribute any of the genocides before or after it to his religion.

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