Objection #7: Church History Is Littered with Oppression and Violence (2001)
(Interview w/ John D. Woodbridge, Ph.D.)
Kyle J. Gerkin
This objection is a statement of fact, which cannot be avoided. Woodbridge acknowledges this, and instead tries to provide context to soften some of the tyranny. We will get to that in a moment, but let us ask: is this objection a good reason not to become a Christian? If we are strictly speaking of the Christian as a follower of Christ’s teachings, then I don’t see that this is much of an objection since Christ doesn’t teach persecution. However, if one is planning to join an institutional church, then one should at the very least be wary of the tendency for authority to abuse power. But, the most important lesson to be learned from this objection is that we must do everything in our power to keep the state separate from religion, for it is when religion attains governing power that it becomes truly dangerous and evil.
Confessing The Church’s Sins
The fact that the Catholic church has glossed over a number of atrocities throughout the years is brought to light. A distinction is made between cultural Christians and authentic Christians (200-2).
While it is true that the Catholic church has been responsible for many atrocities in its history, there is something a bit suspicious about the way they are brought into the fray here. There is no explicit accusation, yet this is clearly an evangelical book, and I believe they would like nothing better than to plant the seed that it is the Catholic church that should bear the lion’s share of the blame. But is this fair? An indisputable fact of human history is that whenever there has been a group with strength, they have oppressed those weaker than them. A people, no matter how bitterly persecuted, become enthusiastic persecutors as soon as the tables are turned. It appears to be an undeniable tenet of human nature that those in power will oppress those who are not. This is why limited governments and democracies have often been able to achieve a measure of personal prosperity and liberty for their citizens, while dictatorships are almost uniformly rife with atrocities and oppression. Adding religion to a dictatorship (theocracy) is possibly the worst of all worlds. Then you’ve got a situation where the rulers presume to speak absolutely, not just for their own government, but for all of the cosmos in the name of God. This, coupled with the dogma inherent in religion, is a sure blockade to progress.
Therefore, it should not surprise us that the Catholic church committed unspeakable acts of violence during its state-sponsored tenure. When did these acts begin to appear? After Constantine adopted Christianity as the official Roman religion. When did such acts begin to disappear? As the church lost power and the Age of Enlightenment took hold. These are not coincidences. Because Protestantism did not arise until the decline of Catholic power (also not coincidentally) those churches have a much briefer history, and thanks to forward thinking, Christianity never again became the dominant ruling force it once was. Of course, Protestant groups like Lutherans and Anglicans can claim a goodly share of evil, from the oppression of native peoples to burning or hanging so-called "witches" to supporting slavery. And if we were to substitute one of the Protestant churches for Catholicism during the Dark Ages, I’m sure the results wouldn’t have been much different.
According to Woodbridge, "Some people are cultural Christians but not authentic Christians" (200). Of course, the idea is that cultural Christians are at fault in many instances of oppression, while authentic Christians are the real followers of Christ. This may get individual Christians off the hook, but it does nothing for the organization of the church. The fact is that churches create cultural Christians, and the churches themselves, if given any real measure of power, are unlikely to continue acting "authentically" Christian. After all, Christ himself was persecuted. But what if he had been openly accepted as the King of the Jews and placed on a throne? Would he have begun acting differently? Of course, those who believe him to be the son of God will say no, but from a secular standpoint, I wonder.
Why Christianity Spread
Woodbridge enumerates several reasons for the initial spread of Christianity. Strobel lists 5 of Christianity’s sins, and Woodbridge responds in turn (203-16).
Sin #1: The Crusades
As Woodbridge points out, the first crusade was launched by Pope Urban II "when he gave a very famous sermon and the crowds responded by declaring, ‘God wills it!’" (205). This is the first danger in religion – the sheep factor. Unfortunately, most people are more than happy to let someone else think for them, and that is an enormous power to vest in someone. But many people choose to do this with their ministers, and feel safe with such action, because after all – he’s a man of God. If there is a higher moral crime than declining to think, I do not know of it. And unsurprisingly, people are at their most immoral when this declination occurs. Woodbridge 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 (205). But I can only understand this if I posit that the crusaders were unthinking, illiterate goons, as was often probably the case. Indeed, 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. If the crusaders actually thought about Christ’s teachings, they would realize he would not endorse wars of any kind, much less in his name. Finally, speaking of Pope Innocence III’s promise of salvation to those who went on crusades, Woodbridge declares, "It makes a mockery of the teachings of the Bible…" (206). Well, maybe the New Testament. But the Old Testament is chock full of Holy Wars fought by God’s chosen people at his command (Deuteronomy 7:1-2 for example)…very consistent with the crusades.
Sin #2: The Inquisition
Woodbridge talks about the origins of the Inquisition with the Albigenses of Southern France who were accused of heresy. Woodbridge says, "Actually there’s no question that the Albigenses were proponents of heretical teachings…traditional means of persuasion…didn’t work. The Inquisition was an alternative approach…to try to prevent this heresy from spreading" (207). This is sickening and insulting. Woodbridge practically makes it sound as if the Albigenses deserved the Inquisition, and outrageously cheapens the whole travesty by calling it "an alternative tactic." What was so heretical about the Albigenses? According to historian Joseph McCabe:
…the meanest thing of all is that Canon Vacandard, and most of your modern Catholic apologists, raise over the bones of those hundreds of thousands of murdered men, women, and children the smug and lying inscription that they were "’dangerous to society." How? You will smile when you hear: like Christ, they advocated voluntary poverty and virginity! We know their ideas only from bitter enemies, and this seems to be the rock of offense. Yes, but how could society persist if there were no private property, no soldiers (they opposed war), no procreation of children. And the answer again is simple: these counsels of Christ were (exactly as the modern Catholic theologian says) for the elect few, the "perfect," as the Albigensians called them, and the great body of the "believers" could own what property they liked, marry when they liked, and bear arms when necessary. They were, as Professor Bass Mullinger says in an article in the same Encyclopedia, men of "simple blameless life," and were not responsible for the brawls about the churches. Rome murdered a few hundred thousand real followers of Christ because they were not Christians. 
And as for the Inquisition itself, let us not understate its horror. It was not an "alternative method of persuasion." It was an absolutely evil bloodbath, plain and simple. McCabe describes the assault on the Albigenses:
The magnitude of the "heresy" can be guessed when we learn that after two years of the most brutal carnage the Albigensians were still so strong that, when the Pope renewed the "crusade" in 1214, a fresh hundred thousand "pilgrims" had to be summoned. Innocent boasts that they took five hundred towns and castles from the heretics, and they generally butchered every man, woman and child in a town when they took it. Noble ladies with their daughters were thrown down wells, and large stones flung upon them. Knights were hanged in batches of eighty. When, at the first large town, soldiers asked how they could distinguish between heretics and orthodox, the Cistercian abbot thundered: "Kill them all, God will know his own," and they put to the sword the forty thousand surviving men, women and children. Modern Catholic writers merely quibble when they dispute these things. It is the Catholics of the time who tell us. [ibid.]
Woodbridge notes that matters were further complicated because, "contemporaries often identified heresy with political sedition…Religion and politics were bound up together" (208). Yet another reason to keep religion as far from government as possible. Woodbridge wants to dismiss the Inquisition as an anomaly. He says, "It’s too much of an extrapolation to say this kind of hateful activity is part of a pattern" (208). But it is not an extrapolation at all. The pattern is a clear and documented fact: whenever religion has become powerful (Christianity or otherwise) oppression and tyranny has quickly followed. This very list of "sins" proves that.
Sin #3: The Salem Witch Trials
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. 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. If they denied witchcraft (even after extensive torture) well, that’s exactly what a lying witch would say, so they were executed. One of the most popular accusations was sexual communion with the devil, and this led to mutilation of the women’s sexual organs. . 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.
Next, Woodbridge utters the most disturbing argument yet. "…part of the problem in dealing with the Salem witch trials is the assumption that all of this was totally hokum, that there’s no such thing as witches and witchcraft. The hardcore reality is that there are…" (210). This statement alone is enough to discredit the entire chapter. 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). People like Woodbridge reinforce my belief that if Christianity regains a position of real power, witch hunts will be as popular as ever.
Sin #4: Exploitation By The Missionaries
Woodbridge stresses many times that, while there was undeniable exploitation, there are missionaries who did praiseworthy acts. I don’t doubt this, but how do we explain the exploitation? I think the answer lies in the fundamental arrogance of the missionary ideal. The missionary ideal assumes that any religion and spirituality other than one’s own is wrong, or worse yet, evil. This, in and of itself, is perhaps excusable. But when coupled with the notion that adherents of these evil religions need the missionaries to enter their lives and set them straight, the ideal becomes ripe for exploitation. How can the chosen people armed with God’s truth help but take advantage of the heathen savages? After all, they ought to get something for doing God’s work and saving these poor bastards’ souls. Religion is like a vacuum cleaner – it doesn’t need to be sold door to door. If people are interested, they can come to the store.
Sin #5: Anti-Semitism
Woodbridge does his best here, but sputters out and breaks down in the middle of the section, admitting failure. "One would’ve thought – or, should I say, one would’ve hoped – that Christians by the Middle Ages on going up to Martin’s Luther’s day would have realized the teachings of Jesus absolutely forbade them from doing and saying some of the things that were said and done in his name" (214). One might’ve thought that – if religion were concerned with a thinking man’s morality. But, once one realizes that religion has primarily been used throughout the ages as a tool to abuse power, channel fear, give orders, and justify prejudice – it is easy to see that there was no hope. Woodbridge discusses Hitler’s ploy to associate himself with Christianity, declaring him an impostor "…who could not have been an authentic Christian…" (216). True as this may be, it is interesting to note that Hitler saw the value of Christianity as something that could easily be used for whatever nefarious purposes he desired.
A Portrait Of Christianity
Strobel avoids continuing the list of atrocities, and moves on to atheist crimes. Woodbridge lists the benefits of Christianity (216-9).
Strobel starts out, "We could have gone on to discuss other historical blots on Christianity…" (216). We certainly could have. Strobel protests that he has grilled Woodbridge sufficiently, but undoubtedly he doesn’t want to add any more fuel to this ever-growing fire of hatred. 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. Women have consistently been made to suffer unjustly for the fairy-tale sin of Eve. And what was that sin? The acquisition of knowledge. That really shows you where Christianity stands.
And there are travesties unmentioned. Perhaps the greatest crime of Christianity goes undocumented: the war on critical thought. 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.
And let us not make the mistake of thinking that Christianity’s errors are all left behind in its dark and distant past, and that churches today have learned better. Today’s Christianity often exerts its negative influence: promoting anthropomorphic conceit, unhealthy attitudes towards sex, superstitious prejudice, and worst of all, cutting off critical thought at the knees. There are still people who kill abortion doctors in the name of Jesus. We are most fortunate that Christianity doesn’t have the power to extend this influence further than it already does. When asked if the world is better off because of Christianity, Woodbridge declares that there is "No question about it" (216). I am not so sure. Given Christianity’s long-standing hand-in-hand relationship with oppression, it hardly seems we could be worse off.
Strobel and Woodbridge then try to pass the buck to atheism, suggesting that the world would truly be a terrible place if atheism was rampant. Addressing "…the role of atheism in trampling human rights…" Strobel cites Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung (216-7). The pathetic frailty of this argument is multi-faceted.
(1.) 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 bigotted and insulting lie.
(2.) 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.
(3.) 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.
Atheism per se has nothing to do with oppression, pro or con. Now, there is a movement widely known as Secular Humanism that is non-religious, mostly atheist, and that does provide a wider context for morality and philosophy. But Stalin, Lenin, and Mao Tse-tung were a far cry from secular humanists, and there are actually no Secular Humanist murderers on record–yet there are many Christian murderers who were nevertheless true believers. Can one then conclude that a Secular Humanist world would be any worse than a Christian one? Might one instead suggest the reverse?
(4.) Woodbridge and Strobel have just spent the entire chapter arguing that while particular Christians have acted tremendously evil at times, this should not turn us off to Christianity at large. Then they turn right around and try to use the same reasoning they have just assaulted against atheism. The hypocrisy is palpable.
(5.) 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.
Woodbridge lists some of the humanitarian accomplishments of Christianity including homeless shelters, rehabilitation programs, feeding the poor, etc. He claims that "Losing all of that…would be a devastating blow to the world" (218). But this assumes that if it were not for Christianity such things wouldn’t exist and we would have a gaping humanitarian void. Of course, there is no reason to think this. Humanism existed prior to Christianity, and it exists outside of Christianity. There are many other religions with humanitarian impulses, and secular organizations with the same goals. I would argue that it is science, not religion, that has been the greatest ally of humanism. I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t have the benefits of Christianity without the actual religion. Woodbridge also points to Christians’ "literary, musical, architectural, scientific and artistic contributions" (218). Once again, while there certainly have been many Christians who have made such contributions, are the contributions a result of their Christianity? If so, we would expect to see a lack of such contributions among other religions, and especially atheists. But we do not. If anything, we can argue that Christianity, at the height of its power in the Dark Ages, produced the most minimal of such contributions.
The Gifts Of Christianity
Strobel quotes some other Christian apologists about why Christianity is great (219-21).
One quote in particular is really disingenuous. David Lyle Jeffery says, "In most of Europe, as in Africa, South America, and many parts of the world, the birth of literacy and literature essentially, not accidentally, coincides with the arrival of Christian missionaries" (220). Actually, it coincides essentially with the invention of the printing press, and only coincidentally with Christianity because the Bible was the most widely printed book. And of course, literacy, and above all literature, began centuries before Christ even walked the Earth, in many places around the world. In fact, the very notion of the literate, educated man and woman as the ideal began with the pagan Greeks and Romans, and was trampled underfoot by Christians for centuries before the rediscovery of pagan writings in the Renaissance stirred a renewed interest in this pagan humanist ideal.