Magi Mike's Blog

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Should Christianity Be Blamed for Torture?

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Karl Giberson PhD, wrote in the Huffington Post criticizing atheists who criticize Christians for their historical crimes like institutional torture under the, still extant, Holy Inquisition. Giberson admits torture has a “sordid history” “in the name of the Christian religion”. But Christians do not do it any more because it is “all but incomprehensible today”:

The use of torture by Christians—or anyone, for that matter—to motivate people to change their beliefs, admit they hold heretical beliefs or convince them to change their religion is all but incomprehensible today. Who could imagine, for example, a chamber in the basement of the corner church where parishioners would have their thumbs crushed unless they recanted their support for gay marriage, or gave up their belief in infant baptism?

While it might still be true that no such torture chambers exist in the USA for the imposition of futile and trivial Christian dogmata:

  1. to read the fanatical views of large numbers of right wing authoritarian Christians, otherwise known as the Republican Party at prayer, in the comment columns of some blogs and online op ed columns does not give normal people any confidence that these holy warriors would not institute it immediately they were able
  2. Christians considered fit enough to lead the Great Society and the Land of the Free, men like President George W Bush, and VP Dick Cheney, have boasted that torture was not only necessary to safegurd the interests of rich Americans, but it is Christian too. All but incomprehensible today—they were quite certain that God would see fit to accept them into heaven in spite of it
  3. to an outsider, seeing what passes for entertainment in US films, TV and video games, it is difficult to imagine that torture is not a routine occurrence in US society, or that the people are being conditioned by degrees into making it so.

The point, in response to Giberson, is that American Christians are fond of boasting that the USA is a Christian country, with around 90 percent of its citizens allegedly committed to the Christian religion. Inevitably, then, crimes such as Bush’s and Cheney’s are acceptable in a society so utterly violent in its metaphorical heart, and Giberson has to be quite out of touch with reality to claim that torture is incomprehensible today. American administrations have certainly gone a long way, and spent a lot of tax dollars hiding the truth, but simultaneously, the people are being primed by constant violent propaganda to accept what has for several centuries now regarded as utterly wrong in any community claiming to be civilized.

Giberson was not interested in examining reality because he was too offended by some “secularist” raising the embarrassing topic of Christian hypocrisy in such a forthright way, illustrated by graphic images of the instruments of torture used by the Church in its dungeons for 500 years or more. The secularist asked:

Catholics, this used to be the business of your church, and not just in Europe. How much pain would have been spared had there not been faith?

The question itself was not addressed by Giberson, after all, he is a pastor, a professional Christian, who depends upon having a sufficiently large congregation of admirers to pay him a comfortable compensation for his holy efforts. He was interested in defending the source of his daily bread, but in so doing felt obliged to admit the truth of the basic allegations:

Secularists eager to discredit Christianity have gotten a lot of mileage out of the sordid history of torture by the Inquisition and other Christian bodies. Protestants objecting that the Inquisition was a Catholic enterprise should note the case of Michael Servetus, who was convicted of heresy by the French Inquisition and sentenced to be burned with his books. He escaped and the Catholics contented themselves with burning his books and an effigy. En route to Italy, Servetus stopped in Geneva, Switzerland, which was under the control of John Calvin. Identified as a heretic on the run while listening to Calvin preach, Servetus was arrested and, at the end of October 1553, Calvin had him burned to death.

Quite so. It was not just Cathoics who tortured and murdered in the name of God, and for a century culminating at the end of the Thirty Years War, the opposite warriors vied with each other for the honor of burning more of the enemy as heretics—witches!—than their opponents. Giberson can only say, “secularists love these stories… as a rhetorically powerful weapon against religion” while harping on about how repugnant torture is to the modern mind, and simultaneously admitting “we” are rather obsessed by it, fondly making films about it—like The Passion of the Christ, no doubt.

That, of course, is the answer—torture is a human thing which we are all tempted to do, though most of us do not. It has nothing to do with whether we are religious or not, and so has nothing to do with whether we are Christian or not. “Both secular and religious institutions employed torture.” People think it was only Christians because of atheistic propaganda!—“antireligion culture warriors telling their sensationalized version of history”.

The lengths that Christian liars will go to salve their consciences, in the hope that their once almighty God is now an utter dunce and is quite unable to comprehend their tortuous reasoning, is remarkable, and more remarkanble is their complete conviction that by telling their apologetic lies to others as well as convincing themselves, God will be looking down upon them , and smiling approvingly, “Clever child”.

Religion merely reflects “the values of society at large”. Christians seem not to be able to understand that if religions merely reflect society at large, they are having zero effect on the behavior of their members. In other words, if religious people are just as bad as anyone who is non-religious, then what is the use of it? It is not having any effect on making the morals of its flocks any better than those of the unspeakable infidel, the atheists and secularists who are merely saying frankly there is no use in it. So, there is none, and Christians like Giberson admit it! Or they do as long as it seems like a good idea in some context, like this one. Christian apologists have never had any coherent principles because anything is true that they think is expedient at any particular moment.

Giberson thinks Christianity is salvaged because despite it reflecting society at large, it had a reforming impulse, as if there were no reformers before Christianity emerged, or as if no one who is not a Christian since has ever effected any sort of reform in society. The truth—historical, not Christian—is that Christianity has been a deeply conservative force in society since Roman times, and has consistently resisted almost every attempt to bring in reformations that would improve people’s lot on earth. Salvation was to be had after death, not in this world, and for long it was reformers who were labeled as heretics and were tortured to death.

Some people might be inclined to respect Giberson for having somewhat enlightened views on evolution compared with his fundamentalist co-religionists, but anything a Christian says has to be judged on its merits. Basically, their attitude is that anything is right if they think it helps Christianity, even torture.

Christianity: God's Failed Experiment

Christianity: God's Failed Experiment

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Written by mikemagee

23 December, 2010 at 11:30 pm

3 Responses

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  1. These are provocative and reasonable responses. I share your worry about what right wing theocrats would do if they were in charge. One of them–John Loftus–excoriated me in a long email exchange for suggesting that John Calvin should be criticized for executing Servetus. Loftus think Servetus got what he deserved. I suspect that, in Loftus America, Jerry Coyne and Dan Dennet would be tortured and executed.

    One small note. I am not a pastor. That was my father. I am a college professor and a writer.

    Karl Giberson

    24 December, 2010 at 1:04 pm

  2. My apologies for thinking you were a pastor. Perhaps it’s the way you write 🙂 .

    For me, what is important about the way Christ is presented in the gospels is his practical morality, which fits very well, I believe, with the emerging details of humanity’s natural “evolutionary morality”, a morality which accompanies the needs of a human society, and the fact that we are plainly social beings. Society must seem like heaven to a solitary animal (if it could think) because of the insurance it gives against want and insecurity, and that is why societies of animals evolve. Once society offers no advantages to the individual, and even disadvantages, then it has lost its purpose, and disloyalty to it will grow — the equivalence of individuals leaving the group in earlier times when it was possible. Christ’s practical teaching is meant to strengthen social cohesion. That is the aim of mutual love — it does what society evolved to do. Torture is the complete antithesis of this.

    If we are not mutually loving, caring and compassionate then our society has failed each of us. If it has nothing to offer us then what is to motivate us not to blow up uncaring people or the malignant society’s institutions. Capitalism is based on mutual exploitation, not on mutual assistance. Society, most modern day Christians, and especially those on the right wing, have it all wrong. They should expect growing dissension unless they take to secular Christianity, the practical morality of Christ, instead of its opposite, might is right, winner takes all, the devil take the hindmost, that is the capitalistic modern mood.

    Of course, supernaturalism is left out of this. Christ could only be a man of his times, and so he justified his views in the terms he and others knew and understood, Judaism and the Jewish God. So, we can accept Christian practical morality while not having to justify it in ancient supernaturalism.

    Mike Magee

    24 December, 2010 at 5:55 pm


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