CHRISTIANITY ON TRIAL:
Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry
by Vincent Carroll and David Shifiett
(Encounter Books, 2002, 244pp, $31.95. Available from AD Books)
As the Western world grows increasingly secular, the attacks on religion in general and Christianity in particular become ever more shrill and pronounced. Christianity especially has long been the object of ridicule, criticism and ostracism. Of course some of that is earned. But much is not. This new book looks at some of the major critiques of Christianity, and offers some telling responses.
All the usual criticisms are examined in detail: What about the Crusades? Isn't the Bible at odds with science? Didn't Christians support the Nazis? Isn't Christianity sexist, racist, imperialist, etc? These and other common objections are given careful attention.
Consider the case of the Spanish Inquisition. By all accounts, this was nasty business. But a sense of perspective is in order. A careful examination of the historical record reveals that at tops, around 2,000 people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition. This is 2,000 too many. But this works out to an average of fewer than three people a year during the 16th and 17th centuries - a far cry from the many millions a year killed in the name of godless Communism and Nazism.
Similar things can be said about the Salem witch trials - which were few, in any case. In fact, many of the Christian leaders - Puritans included - were opposed to them. While religious leaders believed in witches, so did most of their contemporaries and it was often ministers who opposed the trials. Cotton Mather went so far as to say it was "better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned".
Other criticisms of Christianity are covered at length, e.g., Christianity leads to environmental degradation, or a suppression of human rights and freedoms.
But criticisms are not the sole focus of this book. The positive contributions of Christianity are also canvassed.
One example is the rise of charitable and benevolent societies. While charity was practised on occasion before Christianity emerged, it became the norm instead of the exception with the new-found faith. More than one cynical critic of the early Christians was forced to admit that these believers practised what they preached, and were serious about applying the words of their Lord.
This could be seen especially when major epidemics broke out. The standard pagan response was to flee while the ones who stayed and tended the sick and needy were mainly Christians. This concern for the poor and afflicted was largely responsible for the tremendous growth of Christianity during its early centuries. Many people converted on the basis of the caring and compassionate response of believers in the face of suffering, sickness and death.
The authors also examine the relationship between religion and science.
Contrary to popular belief, Christianity has had more to do with the spread of knowledge and science than its hindrance. Those times when the Church blocked progress in intellectual discovery and scientific enterprise were the exception rather than the rule. In fact, many secular thinkers have noted it was the Christian world view that in many ways made the rise of modern science possible.
The world view of the Roman Empire was syncretistic, fatalistic and superstitious, poor ground for the growth and flourishing of scientific inquiry, whereas the biblical Christian worldview was much more conducive to scientific progress.
In time, the cyclical view of history of pagan Rome was replaced by the linear conception of history found in Christianity. Christians believed in an orderly, purposeful world with a sense of direction and meaning - something the scientific mind could tap into and explore. It was a perspective which viewed the world with purpose and meaning waiting to be discovered - a very different one from that of pagan Rome, which offered little incentive to the scientifically motivated.
True, scientific advances did take root in two other cultures: the Islamic world and China. But in both the efforts stalled, and it was only in the Christianised West that science continued to develop.
Other achievements of Christianity are covered, including its relationship with Western democracy and the struggle against slavery. All in all, the Christian religion has been a force for tremendous good in the world.
Attacks on the Christian religion will continue. But many of the standard objections turn out, on closer inspection, to be not so damaging, being often based on misinformation or selective use of the historical record.
Despite the shortcomings of many of its members, Christianity has much to be proud of - the "overlooked side of the ledger" as the authors put it.
In sum, the world is a better place because of Christianity. In its absence, the world during the past two millennia would arguably have been "crueller, poorer and more provincial, as well as less democratic, creative and informed - in a word, less civilised".
Bill Muehlenberg is National Vice-President of the Australian Family Association.