By J. D. Brucker | 27 February 2014
Quite often we hear that atheism is the least-positive force propagated by humanity. It’s also been said that atheism has led to the loss of a countless number of lives; Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao top the list of offenders. Men from the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza are quick to posit this as a serious objection to the lack of a belief in a god; an argument that fails quicker than a Larry the Cable Guy joke. We atheists have faced this question before and we know how to properly answer it, but grow tired of these senseless responses from the Christian Right.
So, I decided to dredge up the latent hypocrisy behind the words of those who suggest that the most violent offences are a result of bureaucratic atheism. The lack of a belief in god doesn’t ask one to wish for bloodshed; that’s a business better suited for religious doctrine. If Christians wish to build a case against atheism beginning with a faulty argument such as that, perhaps they should look into the violent past of Christianity before fallaciously criticizing atheism.
The Slaying of Hypatia of Alexandria (415 or 416 CE)
Hypatia is often viewed as one of the first female philosophers in recorded history. Aside from this accomplishment, she was also considered an intellectual, a mathematician, and an astronomer.
The date of her death is unknown; either it took place in 415 or 416 CE. During this time, strife ran rampant throughout the streets of Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria’s governor, Orestes, was a great admirer, and her association with him may have led to her death. This is because Cyril, the prevailing Archbishop of the time, became involved in a power-struggle with Orestes. The two would take jabs at one another, and eventually Hypatia was marked for death. It didn’t help that she was a pagan with non-Christian views.
A group of Christians, led by Peter the Lector, marched the streets of Alexandria and found her in a carriage and beat her to death. Socrates Scholasticus wrote the following:
Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a leader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius.
– The Murder of Hypatia by Socrates Scholasticus
She’s since become an inspiration to those who choose to deviate from the social norm by pursuing the opposite of the prevailing ideas.
The First Crusade (1099 CE)
This was a dark and dismal period of Christianity. Beginning in 1095, Pope Urban II wished to reclaim the holy land from enemy control. Some have argued the wars were only a retaliatory war effort in response to the loss of the land to Muslims in 1071, but eventually became slightly more religiously-driven. Once it began, there seemed to be no end.
During the first crusade, Raymond D’Aguilers wrote of the siege of Jerusalem in 1099:
Some of our men cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the temple of Solomon, a place where religious services were ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much at least, that in the temple and portico of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.
– The Middle Ages by Morris Bishop
Fulcher of Chartres wrote:
A great fight took place in the court and porch of the temples, where they were unable to escape from our gladiators. Many fled to the roof of the temple of Solomon, and were shot with arrows, so that they fell to the ground dead. In this temple almost ten thousand were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet colored to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.
– History of the Expedition to Jerusalem by Fulcher of Chartres
William of Tyre wrote:
It was impossible to look upon the vast numbers of the slain without horror; everywhere lay fragments of human bodies, and the very ground was covered with the blood of the slain. It was not alone the spectacle of headless bodies and mutilated limbs strewn in all directions that roused horror in all who looked upon them. Still more dreadful was it to gaze upon the victors themselves, dripping with blood from head to foot, an ominous sight which brought terror to all who met them. It is reported that within the Temple enclosure alone about ten thousand infidels perished, in addition to those who lay slain everywhere throughout the city in the streets and squares, the number of whom was estimated as no less.
– The Capture of Jerusalem by William of Tyre
This was only the first of seven wars waged over the course of 200 years. Many other battles were fought throughout the Middle East, leaving hundreds of thousands killed. Of course, this is not to say the Christian forces weren’t without casualties; they too lost a good number of soldiers. But the Christians were relentless in their efforts, slaughtering men, women, and children as they tore through the holy land. Seen as a valiant effort on behalf of the Christian name, these men who partook in the aforementioned atrocities were revered and honored. Action such as this is everything but noteworthy and respectable.
The Crusades finally came to an end close to the thirteenth century once the Christian forces began to lose significantly, ultimately concluding the holy wars were nothing but an utter failure.
The Spanish Inquisition (1478 CE – 1836 CE)
Today, Christianity paints a portrait of itself with vibrant colors, powerful in strength and adoration. But during the late 15th century, this portrait was painted in the blood of the non-Catholic residents of Spain. The Catholic Church organized these trials as a way to spread the Christian faith more effectively by removing, punishing, or executing those of different faiths. Pope Sixtus order Spain to follow a strict code of conduct regarding the inquisition, but King Ferdinand rather took it upon himself to do so as he saw fit; hasty trials with grotesque methods of punishment.
Those awaiting trial would find themselves subjected to horrendous torture. Many of the applications administered include hanging the victim by the wrists from chains, early forms of waterboarding, and stretching the individual on what is commonly referred to as the rack. As one would expect, many died before reaching trial.
Those who found themselves guilty on charges brought by the court would ultimately face one of two different outcomes. Often, capital punishment was an alternative to a life sentence; burning at the stake was the favorable means of death. In order to bypass a miserable end, many would confess and convert to Christianity, but with that they would face other types of punishment, including social ridicule and rejection – often their families would fall victim as well.
The Spanish Inquisition ended in 1836. After they concluded, over 80,000 charges were brought to an unknown number of alleged perpetrators. Of those perpetrators, a little over 1300 were found guilty and faced death. Indeed it was a sad end to an unnecessary injunction. Rest assured, the Catholic Church became aware of their inappropriate treatment of non-Catholics. In 1994, Pope John Paull II said:
“Hence it is appropriate that as the second millennium of Christianity draws to a close the Church should become ever more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and His Gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of her faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal. Although she is holy because of her incorporation into Christ, the Church does not tire of doing penance. Before God and man, she always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters.”
– Pope John Paul II
Not only did they acknowledge the wrongdoings of the faithful during the inquisitions, the Catholic Church also recognized their failings regarding the conquests of Mesoamerica.
Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire (1519 CE)
Christianity played a significant role in the decimation of native life all throughout the Americas. This wouldn’t have been the case had the Spanish Requirement of 1513 not existed. This order, passed on by the Spanish Monarchy, gave divine rights to those traveling to the new world. These “divine rights” included acquiring land and doing away with the natives in any way possible. The document read:
“On the part of the King, Don Fernando, and of Doña Juana, his daughter, Queen of Castile and León, subduers of the barbarous nations, we their servants notify and make known to you, as best we can, that the Lord our God, living and eternal, created the heaven and the earth, and one man and one woman, of whom you and we, and all the men of the world, were and are all descendants, and all those who come after us.
Of all these nations God our Lord gave charge to one man, called St. Peter, that he should be lord and superior of all the men in the world, that all should obey him, and that he should be the head of the whole human race, wherever men should live, and under whatever law, sect, or belief they should be; and he gave him the world for his kingdom and jurisdiction.
One of these pontiffs, who succeeded St. Peter as lord of the world in the dignity and seat which I have before mentioned, made donation of these isles and Terra-firma to the aforesaid King and Queen and to their successors, our lords, with all that there are in these territories,
Wherefore, as best we can, we ask and require you that you consider what we have said to you, and that you take the time that shall be necessary to understand and deliberate upon it, and that you acknowledge the Church as the ruler and superior of the whole world,
But if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him: and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.”
– The Spanish Requirement of 1513
This unnecessary document was unfortunately read to the natives whom the Spanish faced as they seized Central America. Feeling as though God was on their side, the merciless, tyrannical, and deadly overthrow of native empires began.
Hernando Cortes overthrew the Aztec Empire beginning in 1519. It was a slow and arduous process, but the empire collapsed under the weight of the Spanish forces. Intending to convert the natives to Christianity, the inability to communicate eventually lead to dangerous and forceful means of conversion. If they refused to plead for their souls with God, they would be either killed or enslaved. Since Christianity was new to the Aztec people, it is to no surprise to see most were killed as a result of the foolish and barbarous behavior of the conquistadors. Once the onslaught ceased, almost 240,000 Aztecs lost their lives.
Christianity didn’t explicitly call for these atrocities, but those who upheld the faith mandated it as God’s will. Sure, we can play with hypotheticals and suggest if it wasn’t Christianity, these villains would’ve used another form of justification. Sadly, that isn’t the case and we must try to understand and accept history as it actually happened: Christianity has been responsible for the enslavement, torture, and deaths of a countless number of lives throughout history.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
J. D. Brucker is an author of nonfiction and fiction. He’s written four nonfiction books, three of which have topped the Amazon Kindle charts in three different categories. “When Darkness Comes” stands as his first venture into horror fiction writing. He currently resides in central Illinois.
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