I have seen a number of screeds condemning the Church wholesale for its many past crimes. I agree entirely that the Church has perpetrated many crimes: simony, the massacres, the burning of heretics, the accumulation of wealth, and so on. But I think that some people go too far, rejecting the Church as an entirely evil component of Western history. 

This graph, for example, represents a lot of ignorance of Western history. The Church was not, as one book claims, responsible for the collapse of classical civilization. Many hypotheses have been proposed as partial explanations for that collapse, and the "guilty Church" hypothesis has to be at the bottom of a long list of ideas.

I suggest that three factors must be given due consideration in any discussion of the role that the Church played in Western history:

1. The Church's behavior at any given time must be evaluated within the cultural context of the times. For example, simony was merely the Church's own version of a practice that was common in the West. Indeed, the purchase of military offices was standard practice in many Western nations right up into the Napoleonic Wars. 

2. The Church was a huge organization consisting of millions of participants spread over nearly two millennia. In any collection of human beings, there will be saints and sinners. There are some truly monstrous figures in Church history; there are also some genuine heroes. I am not excusing the Church for "a few bad apples"; I am instead demanding that the heroes deserve our consideration, too. 

3. The Church made many contributions to the advance of Western civilization. It preserved much of the literature of classical civilization. Most of our historical records of the period from the collapse of classical civilization to the Renaissance were written by churchmen. Church thinkers advanced Western thought for centuries. Let us not minimize these important contributions.

Let's consider, for example, the famous confrontation between Galileo and the Church over Copernicanism. The high-school version of this confrontation is that the evil Church, determined to preserve the ancient ways, suppressed scientific progress by punishing Galileo and threatening him with death. The truth is much more complicated, much more interesting, and much less mythological in texture. Galileo engaged in some duplicitous behavior. He had many supporters within the Church, including Cardinal Bellarmine and Pope Paul V and Pope Urban VIII. Wikipedia has an excellent summary of what was a very complicated situation, although it leaves out some important antecedent details. 

My intellectual curiosity has led me to explore many topics, and I have learned that it is impossible to understand Western history without a firm grasp of the role, both positive and negative, played by the Church. Along the way, I have learned much that illuminates other areas of interest. 

Fair enough?

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"My character, like yours, is a composite of all the events, happenstance, and circumstances that transpired before, and after, I arrived in this world. It is resultant from the accumulation of my choices -- and the choices of those in positions of power and authority, over which, I am, all too often, powerless. 
"But if you discern what I yearn for, you will know who I am."
~ Phil Rothrock

Chris Crawford, do you have any idea what it feels like for a battered woman or child trying to describe their experiences and hear such words as, "If you would just calm down, everything would be all right!" or "If you would stop yelling he would stop hitting!" First of all, those statements are lies. Second, they would if they could.

Working in battered women's shelters and child abuse centers, I heard these words coming from police officers, chaplains, doctors, social workers. The issue is, the woman or child and sometimes the man does not know what else to do. They may have tried to discuss rationally, or explained calmly, or cried softly, but to be told to do so does not understand how to manage out of control emotions in times of trouble.
The same for starving people in relocation camps. They don't know what else to do. Have you ever seen a person who has learned how to be helpless? The look in their eyes that express being dead, even as their bodies continue to function at some decreased level.
Stopping them from crying, weeping, looking dead, doing nothing is not the solution.
When an individual, a family, or a society loses control over their own lives they have already learned how to be helpless. The task is to do the problem solving for them until they can regain that part of their humanity. They can't do it by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
We need you, the "head people" we call such personalities to be fully involved with those in the field trying to put some order into chaotic lives. We don't need a history lesson of the Burning Times, or excuses why people don't see what is happening in the here and now. We need head people to see and speak their wisdom and participate in the present problem.
Yes, I have studied the Inquisition, the Burning Times and have gone to those places to get a feel for what those people experience.
I was in Berlin just before the Wall came down. West Berlin had buildings rebuilt and painted bright colors, street cafes with musicians playing as diners sat enjoying the trees and flowers and shops and each other. I crossed into East Berlin, there were still bullet holes in unpainted buildings, trees and grass revealed more dying than living, the people looked dead, with heads turned downward, going about their business trying to get food. There were no cafes, lots of armed military, and to get into a conversation with anyone meant having a talk with a person with no interests, no compassion, no feelings.
Just stop and think for a minute what I just descried to you. They shared the same mountains, air, water, soils, but within just a few feet of each other, they were 160 degrees out of phase with each other. Why? Politics! Beliefs! Attitudes!
Now, stop giving out platitudes in explanation of that is. Dream with me what can be. Imagine a preferred future, with me, of what can be accomplished. Explore with me those ideas that have a high probability of making changes that desperately need changing.
My war is not with you, it is with people like you who pontificate as if you know more than those in the field. Become our partners because a lot is at stake here. We may destroy life on Earth as we know it before we get these things working.
Global warming is real. Now, let's work on it. Political oppression is real, we can make a difference. Economic inequality is real, people need to know that and its consequences. Religious oppress is a fact, and we know it.
Willing to work with me?

No, Joan, I don't know what those things feel like. I don't endorse the various crimes and mistakes you describe, and I don't want to join your crusade. I wish you well, but I have crusades of my own. And I certainly refuse to acquiesce to any notion that I am in some manner morally deficient because my approach differs from yours.

Well, at least you are honest. Good bye. 

Chris, several points:

First, thanks for your link to the Dark Ages graph.

Has your study of Western History shown you another, earlier, "dark age" during the ten centuries before the period covered by the graph? I found it while studying the history of mathematics. It appears to have resulted from an invasion of the eastern Mediterranean lands and may have caused the loss of much ancient Babylonian knowledge.

Second, your claim to objectivity.

If you intend to publish to an academic audience, a dispassionate objectivity is required. I'm wondering what benefit you see by giving notice of your work here where such objectivity will be seen by people the RCC has harmed. We will give your work not the peer review required for academic publication, but caustic review.

Third, your chosen title.

Can a work titled The Role of the Church in Western History rationally omit mention of the harm done by people affiliated with the Church? If your work is to be objective, its harm-help ratio has to echo the historical harm-help ratio. Failing that, your work is an apologia for the Church and, perhaps, a rationalization for you.

Finally, if I were writing law I would prohibit the mental and emotional bullying inflicted on children in Catholic, and perhaps other church-run, schools and severely punish the people responsible.

Yes, there's something called variously the "Bronze Age Dark Age" or "the dark age at the end of the Bronze Age". The best documentation on it comes from Egyptian records, which describe somebody they call "the Sea Peoples" who attacked all along the Eastern Mediterranean littoral. Think of them as the Vikings 2000 years earlier. The most popular hypothesis is that they were somewhat Greek in stock, but coming from Thrace or points further north. However, this hypothesis is considered speculative; there's little evidence to work with.

Regarding objectivity, I suggest that the issue is not so much objectivity as emotionalism. I think that most atheists would agree that religion is most destructive when it is most passionate. My impression is that atheists tend to be less bent by passion. I would certainly expect that a caustic response would come from a passionate person, whatever their inclinations. 

In any case, my concern here is with truth, not subjectivity. I'm sure that all the readers here respect the value of truth.

You ask "Can a work titled The Role of the Church in Western History rationally omit mention of the harm done by people affiliated with the Church?" I suggest that you re-read the second sentence of the piece:

I agree entirely that the Church has perpetrated many crimes: simony, the massacres, the burning of heretics, the accumulation of wealth, and so on.

How does this constitute "omitting mention of the harm done by people affiliated with the Church"?

You note that a proper assessment of the role of the Church in Western History should properly reflect the harm-to-help ratio. Such a proper assessment would of course require book-length treatment; moreover, my point concerned an imbalance I perceive in comments among some atheists. Most significantly, such an assessment is ultimately a subjective matter; every person is entitled to their own opinion on it, but the more informed that opinion, the more respect it deserves. My impression is that SOME atheists have a limited appreciation of the history in this matter. My own opinion is that, had the Church never existed, Western civilization would not have surpassed Chinese civilization in economic output and would today be a backwards area compared withe China.

Obviously, I do not consider my comments to constitute an apologia for the Church, and certainly not a rationalization for me, as I rejected Catholicism at an early age. I was raised in the Catholic schools, and even spent my freshman year in a Jesuit high school. I experienced none of the mental and emotional bullying you describe and in fact consider the overall experience to have placed me at an advantage relative to publicly-educated students. Having experienced both Catholic and public education, I think my opinion on this matter is somewhat better informed than that of those who attended only one of the two systems.

I would enjoy a dispassionate discussion of the history of the Church's contributions to Western civilization.

Chris, I appreciate your admission that a proper assessment of the harm-help ratio would require book-length treatment. Are you intending to do a book?

I find your thesis on Western and Chinese civilizations and economies interesting. For years as time allowed I've looked for Chinese views on Western culture. The very little I've found told me more about Chinese religions than about anything Western.

I agree that some of the education in Catholic schools is quality stuff. My kid brother (15 years younger) did his 12th grade in a public high school. He was both surprised and pleased that he was quickly put on the Dean's List. In the two Catholic grade schools I attended, some of that educating was done by women who needed therapy but were given rooms full of children. As you well know, this life is unimportant.

You spent one year in a Jesuit high school; I spent two years in a Jesuit high school. We students worked hard, which is an advantage. The teachers believed hard; one of my two religion teachers told the class that if the order's leader tells them black is white, then black is white. He was of course speaking metaphorically, but that is a strange metaphor for a thinking adult.

During four years in hard ball politics, I heard this: The best slaves of all are those who believe they are free. What you have so far written gives me confidence that you believe you are free.

If you intend to publish to an academic audience, a dispassionate objectivity is required. I'm wondering what benefit you see by giving notice of your work here where such objectivity will be seen by people the RCC has harmed. We will give your work not the peer review required for academic publication, but caustic review.

I was just trying to put together my thoughts when I read Tom Sarbecks above very appropriately worded comment, with which I agree completely. I am not an ex-Christian and I may be able to see your objectivity,Chris, but most other replies are likely to be less or more emotional. I have myself experienced such emotionality in some earlier discussions here.

While I agree that SOME people here are likely to be overly emotional, my impression is that a goodly majority of correspondents here are more mature than that.

No, I have no plans to write a book on the role of the church in Western civilization; there have been plenty of good ones on that, and I have several other books that I need to write someday.

I would appreciate it if you would make more explicit the insinuation you're getting at with your comment about slaves believing that they're free. Of what do you insinuate that I am slave to?

Chris, you opened this discussion with "I have seen a number of screeds condemning the Church...."

You could have said you'd seen a number of charges or allegations and created an aura of objectivity.

You did not.

When I heard the words "The best slaves of all are those who believe they are free" I did some thinking about what I was doing.

While discussions here are not hardball politics, I leave it to you to do the same.

You could have said you'd seen a number of charges or allegations and created an aura of objectivity.


But the material to which I refer is not merely bereft of objectivity, it is objectively incorrect. There is plenty of room for differences of opinion on subjective interpretation, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with denouncing objective falsehood. Objectivity does not require acquiescence to falsehood; indeed, the objective observer should contradict what is objectively wrong.

I did not need to establish an aura of objectivity; being objective is more important than dressing oneself up as objective.

While discussions here are not hardball politics, I leave it to you to do the same.


You certainly have an elliptical style of expression. Since you seem committed to shroud your meaning in obscurity, I shall not attempt to divine whatever it is you are so coyly insinuating; I shall instead assume that there is nothing there.

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