Kyle J. Gerkin’s critique of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith has a great deal to recommend it. It is not my intention to defend Strobel’s apologetics and I have not even read any of his books. Rather, as a historian specializing in the history of science and religion, as well as being a part time apologist myself, I want to correct some of the errors made by Gerkin in his reply to objection #7. Since I have already dealt with several of the issues Gerkin raises, I will cite my previous essays on them as appropriate. Gerkin’s views are very common and probably qualify as conventional wisdom in skeptical circles. Though earlier historians would have agreed with much of what he says, current research has provided a great deal of new information that has yet to percolate into the public consciousness. Consequently, I will try to clearly demarcate my own views from points that are now reasonably uncontroversial among historians.
The single biggest misconception among skeptics about Christian history is that we should expect Christians to behave better than other human beings. While it would be nice if they did, there is no reason to expect that they should. Christians are sinners and recognize this fact. It is thus ironic, if forgivable, that skeptics–who frequently have serious problems with the concept of sin–use their misconception as a stick with which to beat Christianity. This is a fallacy regardless of the fact that many evangelical Christians seem to have fallen for it themselves when they claim that morality without religion is impossible. Likewise, I have no time for the fallacy that those who have sinned in the name of Christ were somehow not true Christians. They were certainly wrong, but that hardly means that they can be excluded from the faith. It is encouraging that some, such as Innocent III, realized that they had blood on their hands and earnestly sought forgiveness for what they had done. Others will have to wait for Judgment Day to learn that they were mistaken.
I agree with Gerkin’s remarks about the need to maintain the separation between church and state. And he is surely right that power is abused by all who hold it, whether they are bishops or democratically elected presidents and prime ministers. Gerkin notices that it is the Catholic Church that has gotten most of the bad press in this regard, but that is likely because it has been around the longest and held the most effective power during its reign.
Gerkin’s Errors of Fact
In his remarks about the Crusades Gerkin says that “the astounding illiteracy of the time can also be attributed to the church, which relied on its learned clergy’s elite-access to the Bible as a great source of their power.” This is a rather odd objection given that literacy in twelfth-century Europe was historically high in Christian countries as compared to pre-Christian ones. The Church did run most of the schools but made no effort to close them to lay people who paid their fees. Universities required students to be in holy orders, but they were not required to become priests, and ceased to be clerics when they left. Given that church law was considerably milder than secular law, being a clerk was a useful perk for students.
Regarding the Crusades, Gerkin notes:
Woodbridge [Strobel’s expert] tries to convince us that if we place ourselves in the crusaders’ position, “we can understand that they thought they were doing something magnificent for Christ” by retaking the Holy Land. But I can only understand this if I posit that the crusaders were unthinking, illiterate goons, as was often probably the case.
Secular rulers were descended from the warrior aristocracies that conquered the western Roman Empire during the fifth century, as well as Norsemen and other pagan raiders. All these peoples were functionally illiterate (except for a few symbolic runes and the so-called Ogham script of Ireland) and reading was still not a priority for rulers until much later. They were happy to leave such matters to the professionals while they got on with the serious business of war. In fact, conversion to Christianity seems to have quietened them down quite a bit. Urban II was reacting to a direct request for help by the Byzantine Empire, which sought to break the power of the Turks. The Islamic presence in Spain and the Balkans meant that Catholic Europe was quite justified to see them as a threat to its existence, a threat that would become more and more real over the next five centuries as Ottoman Turkish power waxed.
Gerkin also touches on the Albigensian crusade ordered by Innocent III. He asks: “What was so heretical about the Albigenses? According to historian Joseph McCabe…” But countering popular Christian apologetics with a ranting atheist polemicist like McCabe is probably a mistake. Besides McCabe’s exaggeration of the numbers who died during the Albigensian crusade (he keeps talking about hundreds of thousands, which would account for the entire population of the Languedoc), he also seems to have little understanding of what the Cathars were about. They were religious fundamentalists of a kind that Gerkin would certainly disapprove of and they harbored a deep hostility towards Catholics. The war was actually triggered by the Cathar murder of the papal legate. This is not to defend the use of force to spread an ideology, be it Catholicism or democracy. But the picture of the Cathars as cuddly and oppressed is simply anti-Catholic propaganda.
On the Inquisition, Gerkin should rely on modern scholarship rather than the ranting of McCabe. I have assembled a FAQ which (I am proud to say) has been criticized by both atheist and Catholic extremists. Thus, I think I am probably being fair. The total death toll over six centuries probably does not exceed 10,000. By comparison, in just the three years of the Spanish Civil War, up to 10,000 monks, nuns, priests, and other member of the religious orders were murdered precisely because they were Catholics. You can see the memorials in every church in Spain. This is a specific instance of massive persecution by atheists against Christians for no other reason than to destroy the religion, reminiscent of the several massacres accompanying the anti-Christianization campaign during the French Revolution (and despite the Gallic Church’s support for the revolution in its early constitutional stage).
Following Strobel, Gerkin then turns to a discussion of the Salem Witch trials, correctly noting that the vast majority of witches died in Europe and that the Salem outbreak was a minor and late reflection of this. He adds:
The word “Salem” should’ve been dropped. These particular witch trials are quite familiar to most Americans because they took place in the colonies, but they are the last vestige of a European massacre beyond imagining. Some sources report that hundreds of thousands (some even estimate millions) of women over hundreds of years were tortured and killed as “witches,” and even if one could dispute the numbers, this would in no relevant way diminish the injustice.
According to modern scholars, the true figure is about sixty thousand over three centuries. This is still horrifyingly large, but Gerkin is engaging in polemic by once again bringing up exaggerated figures. By chance, the number of witches killed in three centuries is about the same as the number of people executed during the French Revolutionary Terror in three years. Thus even within Europe, Christians had no monopoly on unjust killing, and other ideologies were frequently much worse.
They could be accused for any reason, and their “trials” were nothing of the sort, as they were presumed guilty with no possibility of proving innocence. If they admitted to witchcraft (under torture of course), then they were executed. There is no denying that the Christian church spearheaded these sadistic acts. And Protestants cannot slough the blame off onto the Catholics, for far more witches were burned in Britain after the Reformation than before it.
Actually, acquittal rates for witchcraft were often quite high: e.g., 36% at Paris and 57% in Finland. And the death penalty was not the usual sentence: it was handed down 17% of the time in Geneva, 10% at Paris, and 13% in Finland, and 50% of the time on average for Europe as a whole. No witches were burnt in Britain, although about 1,000 were hung in England and 1,500 in Scotland. Though Gerkin rightly notes that both Catholics and Protestants hunted witches, they rarely came before church courts, and the Inquisition showed great reluctance to convict them.
Gerkin then scoffs, “Woodbridge is apparently convinced of the existence of witches because he once heard a woman claim to be one. And the frightening implication is that witches (or as I like to call them, non-Christians) are deserving of persecution (indeed, torture, mutilation, and execution).” Regardless of the reality, belief in witches during the early modern period was certainly not irrational. Even freethinkers like Thomas Hobbes thought they should be executed.
Gerkin continues with a strange objection: “But it is not fair for Strobel to dismiss crimes such as the oppression of women, or Biblical support for slavery, with a cursory remark. The misogynistic nature of Christianity and its detriment to women over the centuries cannot be discounted.” Doesn’t Gerkin find it odd that women’s rights and the abolition of slavery only happened in Christian countries? It is true that today’s liberal societies have now overtaken Christianity in many of these areas. However, many of the individuals who fought for these rights were specifically motivated by their religion. Christianity arose in the Roman Empire, a misogynistic, slave-owning society, and it is hardly surprising that those attitudes (which are near-universal human traits) should be reflected in its history. However, it is quite wrong to characterize Christianity as misogynistic in comparison to almost any other society in history.
Next we are swept into a historically ridiculous polemic about the ‘Dark Ages’:
Make no mistake that Christianity was a leading cause in plunging most of western civilization into a thousand years of ignorance and illiteracy. The Dark Ages were the height of Christian power, yet that was when society found perhaps its most miserable condition. Strangling independent thought and opposing science at every turn, the church choked out any chance to improve human life. How many suffered and died from plagues and diseases that proper scientific knowledge could have prevented? How many babies perished due to the absence of knowledgeable medical care? How many people starved whose hunger economic progress could have alleviated? These are the uncounted casualties of Christianity.
No reputable historian today thinks that Christianity caused the Dark Ages. Indeed, most historians do not even use the term ‘Dark Ages’ at all. Instead, the period is now known as the ‘Early Middle Ages’ as this nonjudgmental term better reflects the enormous advances in technology, literacy, law, and society that took place. That Gerkin even uses the term Dark Ages shows that he has little idea about the current state of historical study. The myth that the history of the relationship between science and religion has been characterized by a great conflict is also now rejected by all historians of science.
I have no issue with Gerkin’s next contention, that Christianity has been anti-Semitic, and am pleased that the Catholic Church changed its doctrines at the Second Vatican Council and has apologized to Jews who John Paul II called “Our older brothers.” And since it is outside my area of study, I will not comment on Gerkin’s discussion of missionaries.
Gerkin then moves on to Strobel’s attempts to tar atheists with the same brush of atrocities that Gerkin has so liberally applied to Christians. He mentions four culprits: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Gerkin responds indignantly:
Of the four “atheists” listed, one of them, Hitler, was most certainly not an atheist. Hitler was born and raised Catholic. “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so,” Hitler himself told Gerhard Engel, one of his generals, in 1941. In Mein Kampf he says, “Therefore, I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work.” And at a Nazi Christmas celebration in 1926 Hitler declared: “Christ was the greatest early fighter in the battle against the world enemy, the Jews … The work that Christ started but could not finish, I–Adolf Hitler–will conclude.” So why should we possibly consider him an atheist? Because he was evil and killed millions? Undoubtedly this is why Strobel would like us to think so, but it is a bigoted and insulting lie.
Gerkin is right that Hitler was not an atheist. But he wants to imply that he was a Christian, which is just as false. Rather, Hitler’s references to providence and God and the ritualistic pageantry of Nazism were more likely pagan than Christian. Earthly symbols of German valor and Teutonic strength were to be worshipped–not the forgiving, compassionate representative of an “Eastern Mediterranean servant ethic imposed on credulous ancient Germans by force and subterfuge.”
The other three “atheists” all came out of the same fascist communist movement. Their atheism was not of philosophical reasoning or commitment to humanist and scientific values, but a dogmatic tenet of their political ideology. In fact, communism closely parallels religion in many regards. The religious intolerance of these men, their false worship of the collectivist state and blind faith in an inevitable communist paradise, should not be confused with secular or humanistic atheism, for the vast majority of atheists understand that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion, and will fight to their last breath for these freedoms.
It may be convenient for atheists to label Communism as a religion, but this is not appropriate in a piece targeting Christianity. Communism was a political ideology but an atheistic one. While no one would mistake a Stalinist or Maoist for a secular humanist, Gerkin appears to be committing the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy here. There is no escaping that Stalin, Mao, and Lenin were atheists–though it should be irrelevant when deciding whether to be an atheist (or socialist, for that matter) oneself.
Gerkin resumes his apologia:
Atheism has no position on oppression, or tyranny, or anything at all actually–except for the lack of belief in god(s). Atheism is not a comprehensive moral or philosophical system, nor does it pretend to be. To suggest that the aforementioned tyrants’ actions were a consequence of their atheism is akin to suggesting that their actions were a consequence of their brown eyes.
Gerkin is right to note that atheism has no moral implications in itself. This is why Marx insisted that Communism must be atheistic. He needed a moral clean slate to do the things he thought necessary and did not want Christian ethics getting in the way. I believe that this allowed Lenin and Stalin to commit the crimes they did; there is a moral vacuum at the heart of Communism because atheism cannot in itself supply the ethical prescriptions needed to prevent atrocities.
Actually, Communists did specifically target religious groups so as to ensure that they could not challenge the government’s inhumanity. Religion was only tolerated insomuch as it might be useful to the Party, or was so popular that it could not be easily suppressed. And as the Catholic Church’s seminal role in the freeing of Eastern Europe from Soviet tyranny has conclusively demonstrated, the Communists were wise to try to curtail Christianity.
Gerkin then engages in some wishful thinking:
I really don’t think Christians want to start comparing atrocity scorecards with atheists. How many Christians vs. atheists are in prison for violent crimes? Admittedly, Christians outnumber atheists in society as a whole, so the same should be expected in prison, but even accounting for the correct proportion, I wouldn’t be surprised if the atheist number is extraordinarily low.
This is pure speculation and so worthless. Still, Christians know they are sinners. Perhaps atheists should get off their moral high horse. In terms of numbers of deaths, atheists wipe the floor with all the opposition–but again, I agree that this does not mean that atheism itself is evil, just that history’s most evil men happened to be atheists.
In summary, Gerkin’s rebuttal of Strobel suffers badly from his ignorance of most of the issues discussed. To try to argue a historical case without a single reference to a current history book is unwise. As for Christians, we have indeed committed great crimes, and we admit that we are all sinners. But the good we have done is far greater, even if we confine the argument to the facts of this life.
 Charlemagne was famously illiterate and left his educational reform to the cleric Alcuin of York. Ibid., chapter 3. For the conversion of the barbarian tribes see Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity 376-1386 (London: Harper Collins, 1997). On the story of Methodius and Cyril, a particularly good example of literacy spreading with Christianity, see Fletcher chapter 10.
 James Hannam, Frequently Asked Questions about the Inquisition (2003), <http://www.bede.org.uk/inquisition.htm>
 For the abolition of slavery in particular, see Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), chapter 5.
 Colin A. Russell, “The Conflict between Science and Religion” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), p. 7.
Copyright ©2006 by James Hannam. This electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of James Hannam. All rights reserved.