Modern Myths 3: The Witch Trials

One of the big claims made by naturalists against Christians are the witchtrials. Like our other modern myths, the truth of the matter has grown somewhat over the years. So before answering the actual question lets set a few facts straight.

  1. There were not millions of people killed during the witch trials, and most of them were not women.

Various stories put the deaths at the witch trials at more than 9 million between the mid fifteenth century and the 17th century, most of them women, but this simply isn’t true. In total over about three centuries, there were no more than 100,000 total executions for witchcraft, and the number is probably around 60,000.[1] To put this in perspective, it took more than a hundred years for the witch trials to achieve as many deaths as the two years of the Great Terrors under Robespierre. Nor were woman more likely to be killed than men.[2] Often times, in the current mileu of society, this is linked to the belief in a primitive, egalitarian “witch cult” that was overthrown, and that this group was being suppressed. The entire idea behind these ancient goddess worship cults is itself a sort of modern myth, there is no evidence of such an ancient golden age in Europe,[3] and the idea that goddess worship leads to a more just society does not fit with the evidence either. The Athenians were committed to goddess worship, but their record on the rights of women is atrocious by any standard.

In a sense, then, the exaggeration of the numbers indicates we are firmly on the grounds of propaganda not well developed history.

  1. The Witch trials were not a product of the inquisition or the Religious courts.

            Often times, the religious courts or the inquisition are made the ultimate villains in the piece, but in point of fact, this is incorrect. The religious courts and the inquisition tended to be far more careful, and far more reticent than the popular witch fevers that spread during the time.[4] Nor was conviction an automatic death sentence, most people convicted of witchcraft by the religious courts were offered the opportunity to repent, and renounce the devil, with no long term ill-treatment; most accepted this offer.

The various witch-finders worked through the lay courts, which were often less educated, and less careful. Salem is a good example of this.

  1. The Witch trials may not have been religious

            Rodney Stark has argued that the Witch trials came about through the Church’s treating the professional sorcerers as competitors for their services. There is a certain amount of rationality to this proposal, Stark has asserted that the medieval church had a “church of power” opposed by a “church of piety” and there is a certain sensibility to this proposal given what we know of human nature. There are always those who see institutions as means of personal aggrandizement, whether religious, collegial or governmental.


There is something appealing to the Baptist in me, and my natural abhorrence of a state church in this suggestion. And yet, this is I think the problem, the proposal is too rational. If this was merely marketeering gone wrong, why were the better educated, but more self-interested religious courts less likely to kill a witch? The witchtrials happened in spurts and in outbreaks, and while there certainly were opportunists involved,[5] paranoia and hysteria are human traits that have been attached to many things other than the witchcraft by societies other than Christian ones. Similar things are true, for example, of fears involving Satanic ritual abuse in the 80’s which influenced both religious and irreligious groups based on poorly documented works. Similar things are true of the alleged[6] red scares of the fifties. There are examples from the ancient world, including theories about Jews and Christians that had little basis in fact, while the witch trials are examples of “inconsistent monsters,” and are abhorrent- they are all to sadly a result of human nature in this fallen world, not of Christianity.

[1]Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, 202-204; Philip J Sampson, 6 Modern Myths about Christianity and the West, 136-8


[2]Rodney Stark, 211-214.


[3]Bruce Thornton, Plagues of the Mind Locations 3086-3719; Rodney Stark, 207-211.


[4]Philip Sampson, 138-42; Rodney Stark, 204

[5]Such theories are particularly rife in discussions of Salem, along with other discussions of possible hallucinogens in the crops.

[6]I say alleged because the declassification of the Venona telegraphs leads to considerable questions about this period of time, and it is now certain that the Soviet government did have numerous spies and agents in the US State department, including many brought before HUAC and Senator McCarthy’s committee. However, questions involving many in Hollywood, including Lucille Ball indicate that this process was not wholly rational, either.

Modern Myth 4: Christianity caused Western Slavery

I eventually plan to address questions related to slavery in the Old Testament, but the defense I’ve been working on is somewhat unique, so before publishing, I want to make certain that I’ve thought through a few potential ramifications (and since its one of my two major ideas for a dissertation topic, a little bit of discretion is useful). So instead, I will limit this discussion to claims that more modern slavery is a Christian invention, operating with specifically Christian sanction.

  1. Historical problem #1: It Was Christianity that ended Slavery in the West 

         However we deal with the question of the historical role of slavery in the Western Hemisphere, it must be noted that it was specifically Christians, and not atheists or naturalists (such as the French Philosophe’s) who brought about the end of slavery. In fact, the Naturalists of the day did not seem to consider the question important until such time as they thought they it might provide them with a political advantage.

Sometimes, those with political agendas or those claiming interest in Social Justice have claimed that English opposition to slavery was basically due to economic policy – the institution was no longer economically viable. And yet, we know this was not true, England divested itself of slavery at a substantial cost to itself, and spent even larger amounts of money patrolling various waterways to liberate those on slave ships. Nor was this a peculiarly Quaker undertaking, it is true that the Quakers were the first to organize, but there was quite a bit of discussion on the issue amidst various protestant and roman Catholic groups before and after the quakers.

  1. Early proponents of slavery generally opposed Christian Missionaries

There was an active tendency to oppose Christian interference in colonies where slavery was practiced, largely because the Christians missionaries gave slaves dignity that was otherwise denied to them. There were active attempts, for example, to evangelize slave populations. The Roman Catholic Church passed numerous slave regulations in Spanish territories, though once again, political concerns and desire for power minimized their actual implementation in some cases. Similar things are true of a French code.[1] The English state church had little real power in the Caribbean, where the largest number of English slave colonies existed. As is a common story in the American colonies, there were many cases where legitimate commercial interests gave way to oppressive attempts to build fortunes, no matter what the cost in conflict with heartfelt religious sentiment. Slavery was outlawed in the north largely on religious grounds, the Southern story is, sadly very different rooted in the greed of a few, fears of genocide, and a belief among even Southern’s who claimed to be opposed to slavery that simply ending the institution would be impossible, because it had become an essential part of the Southern economy.

  1. The conflict within Christianity presents a truer picture: Consistent and inconsistent monsters.

                  I’ve previously discussed the issue of inconsistent monsters, which is a reference to those whose actions, while monstrous are actually in contrast to their professed beliefs. It is true that some claimed to defend slavery, though how they understood Paul’s admonitions to treat believing slaves as brothers (and many believe implies manumission when possible, since manumission in the first century world was not as easily done as many moderns seem to believe) could be meshed with their actual experience is a bit dumbfounding. They were inconsistent monsters, or as many moderns put it, hypocrites. The very fact that Paul’s words were largely ignored (with some notable exceptions) means their defense of the institution is, for the most part suspect. This is actually matched in history by the earlier ending of slavery in the west, though plenty of criticism can be labeled at its feudalism, which replaced the concept.

Slavery has always been a regressive institution, often presented as a way of dealing with prisoners of war. Christians realized at some point that the human rights abuses of slavery were sub-Christian and it was impossible to maintain the institution on the one hand, and protect human rights on the other.

For further reading, please see Rodney Stark’s for the glory of God, chapter 4.

[1]Rodney Stark, 309-312

Modern Myths #2: The Persecution of Galileo

There are numerous claims in the modern myths about the rise of science. One of the most famous is the case of Galileo. It is true that Galileo was brought before the inquisition, and censored; but there are a number of other problems with the analysis.


Here are a few myths and perhaps outright lies related to Galileo. Some are simple, there is no evidence that Galileo was tortured, that he was poorly treated, and he was not put into exile until his death; he instead continued to live on a church stipend until his death.[1] Similarly, Cardinal Bellarmine did not refuse to look through a telescope, as is often portrayed.


  1. Galileo did not prove the Heliocentric Solar System.


It is often asserted that Galileo proved the Heliocentric solar system (which means that the sun is the center of the solar system), or that he further demonstrated the correctness of the Copernican view (and sometimes the heliocentric view is known as the “Copernican Revolution.”) The problem is that neither Copernicus nor Galileo proved or demonstrated their theories to be correct – in fact, their theories were wrong; instead of the Copernican Revolution we should be speaking of the Keplarian revolution, because it was Kepler, not Galileo or Copernicus that actually put forward a model of a heliocentric world that actually able to provide a better predictive model than the ptolemic model.


  1. Galileo did not contradict the Bible, he contradicted Aristotle.


It is commonly asserted that Galileo contradicted the Bible. Actually, though, the passages questioned do not present a view of the solar system, they typically refer to the appearances we see around us, thus it is no different than a news report that speaks of sunrise in the mornings. What Galileo actually contradicted was the Ptolemic theory as put forward by Aristotle, and was accepted in most of the West through Aquinas. While it is true this led to Biblical and theological questions with both the reformers and the Roman Catholics, for Galileo a larger issue might be that his discussions of Scripture are similar to Calvin and Augustine’s.[2] This in point of fact is one of the real issues for Galileo . The Roman Catholic church reserved for itself all right of interpreting the Scriptures, and in stepping into interpretational waters, it was to a specific Catholic doctrine that he was found to be in error.


      It became common to portray both Galileo and Newton as revolutionary humanists who opposed Christian faith and religion as superstitions. It makes a great story for propaganda but this was ultimately an invention of the French Philosophe’s. Similar elements such as stories of mistreatment are embellishments. It is important to note, Galileo was a convinced and confirmed Catholic, despite the mild reprimand he received.[3]


  1. Galileo’s issues were political


Galileo had previously been supported by the pope and by Bellarmine. However, in publishing his controversial work, Dialogue Concerning the Chief World Systems he ran into problems. The Council of Trent had essentially argued that the Aristotelian view should be held until there were observational evidences present to disprove it. This is something that Galileo could not supply. To make his case weaker, he insulted the Pope by putting the generally accepted argument suggested by Pope Urban VIII into the mouth of his foil, the dim-witted Simplicio. Galileo’s rather acidic personality meant that the academy also took the opportunity to chime in against him.[4]


Some people will immediately argue that this was religious politics – but politics are not ultimately about the doctrine itself, politics is an infiltrator of a religion; as Rodney Stark notes, there is the church of power and the church of piety in religious organizations, and these are often in conflict. Politics is a universal problem, intrinsic in all institutions and a great bane to theology and science alike, but lets not confuse it with religious sentiment.



[1]Sampson, 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization, 38-9

[2]Sampson 40-42

[3]Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, 165.

[4]Rodney Stark, 163-5

Modern Myths: Part 1 Columbus and the Flat Earth

It is often suggested today that Columbus was a scientist who was opposed by the religious establishment who believed that the world was flat. While this creates an exciting tale, and Columbus has been treated by some in the West as either the great villain or the great intellectual hero, in reality, his opponents before his voyage were probably correct, and he was lucky that an unknown landmass (the Americas) lay between him and Asia.

In reality, it had long been known that the earth was a sphere; in fact, it had been proven by Ptolemy before the Christian era. This was both known and accepted by the intellectual class of the time, including the monastic schools, and was largely uncontroversial. Before Kepler, Ptolemy was largely accepted because it matched the observations available, and expectations people had from the Aristotelian physics that were accepted at the time. (One real reason why the Copernicus revolution did not happen immediately is because the revolution is misnamed, it should be the Keplarian revolution. Before Kepler, Copernicus’s writings did not provide a system that better matched the observations of universe than did Ptolemy’s, this will be discussed later with our discussion of Galileo).

So why was there a controversy over Columbus’s voyage that included churchmen, particularly learned churchmen? The question was not the roundness of the earth, but the distance of the earth’s circumference. Columbus thought the Earth to be much smaller than was thought by the churchmen, and for that matter much smaller than it actually is. This created a problem for the ships that were available in Columbus’s day – the trip around the earth was such that it was believed impossible to carry sufficient supplies for the journey. Ironically, the error made by the church in this regard was an oversight made by Columbus as well – no one thought of the possibility of a large landmass between Europe and Asia, something that would actually prove to be Columbus’s salvation.

History is often stranger than fiction, often our assumptions about the past are unjustified. Worse still, often modern myths are created because there is value for the propagandist.

Further reading: C S Lewis – The Discarded Image; Philip J Sampson 6 Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization.