Whenever people talk about the atrocities that have been committed in the name of Christianity, they often revert straight to The Crusades and The Spanish Inquisition, which were certainly terrible but in the grand scheme of things, I think were actually small in comparison to some of the other things pious Christians have done in the past 2000ish years.
Watching a recent documentary about archaeology and the Mayan civilization reminded me of it. Of course, if you recall your high school textbooks, the Spanish arrived on the shores of what is now Mexico and began to systematically enslave, torture, rape, and vandalize the Inca and Mayan peoples. What those textbooks usually gloss over the the absolute annihalation of an entire people group by destroying their culture. The Mayans had books. Carefully written and preserved on accordian-like paper made from fig trees. Everyone in their civilization was taught how to read, but only priests wrote down the histories of their people. In 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa ordered the destruction of these codices declaring the books to be "lies of the devil". He rejoiced in the pain of the people as they watched their history burn. The Catholic church and priests also banned any kind of worship to their ancient gods, the destruction of instruments, and killed anyone who they heard singing songs. Only church hymns were allowed. With two generations the Mayan way of life was extinct, destroyed by a church who believed fully that they were in the right to bring their religion to these savages. As a book lover, there is a great deal of sadness in knowing that such priceless works of art and history were destroyed because one group of people believed in a god and the others believed in another.
This was the fate of many native peoples. Christopher Columbus said, "I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter in your country and shall make war against you ... and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church ... and shall do you all mischief that we can, as to vassals who do not obey and refuse to receive their lord and resist and contradict him." The smallpox epidemics that ravaged the natives was seen as a "marvelous goodness and providence of God". Within 4 years of Columbus landing in Cuba, nearly 4 million people had been killed and within 50 every single local indigenous person had died either by disease, starvation, or murder. It was actually considered sport to hunt them and shoot them full of arrows. An Indian chief named Hatuey tried to flee with his people and was burned alive. He refused to convert and told the priest that "if heaven was where the Christians went, he would rather go to hell." The deaths of these people all across the Americas was seen as a judgment from the Almighty God. The few who opposed such violence were seen as soft-hearted fools. The pious New-Englanders successfully wiped out nearly 98% of the Natives living near them, delighting in their deaths. An estimated 50 million Native Americans were killed directly by violence. That makes the Holocaust seem almost paltry. And here's the best part, I actually knew people growing up who were missionaries to Native Americans. My parents supported their ministry financially and always seemed amazed that more people weren't converting, sure that it was just a matter of time. Why would anyone convert to the religion that not only supported, but also rejoiced in your genocide?
Christians also have an idealic version of how Christianity spread throughout the world. They often use the illogical fallacy of 'argumentum ad populum'. Look at all the people who are Christians now. They can't possibly all be wrong. But how did Christianity spread? Was it because people like Saint Patrick walked around the countryside putting children on his knee and showing people three-leaf clovers? This was the version I was taught. That everywhere the disciples (disciples referring to anyone who was a follower of Christ), they shared the good news and people converted. What they didn't teach were how Christian mobs would enter towns and destroy pagan temples and the priests within them. Remember, pagan in this context is not referring to witchcraft, but rather anyone who wasn't Christian. By 356 AD, anyone attending a pagan service would be punished with death. Even children were executed, sometimes for benign reasons, like when Christian Emperor Theodosius executed a child for playing with the remains of a pagan statue. This man prided himself in following the Christian teachings meticulously. By the 6th century, anyone claiming to be pagan was declared void of all rights. The world famous philosopher Hypatia, a librarian at Alexandria's library was torn to pieces by a hysterical Christian mob. Being non-Christian was dangerous. There were converts everywhere and they were happily turning in their neighbor in an effort to please their god. Worship of the old gods was driven below ground. Some probably converted in order to just stay alive. Wherever Christianity spread, it brought death, destruction, and pain along with it. I have actually heard Christians say that those early peoples abandoned their faiths and idol worship because they never really believed on those old gods anyway. Because who would abandon their faith so easily? I imagine that if Christianity was being treated in this fashion though, that there are a great many people who would leave their faith behind, perhaps secretly still believing it, but knowing that to have a cross in their house would be death and destruction to their families. You only have to look at majority Muslim countries in which apostacy is punishable by death. Those who don't believe must remain eternally silent for fear of their lives. Is it any wonder that such a devastating and brutal religion would not have converted people by the droves?
Let us also not forget how the church and politics were tied together. When Emperor Charlemagne overtook cities, he demanded their immediate conversion. Those unwilling were beheaded. In one town, 4500 Saxons were beheaded for being unwilling to convert. Taxation was was also tied to faith because the money went to the church as well. Those who refused to pay the church tax were often killed. In May of 1234 thousands of peasant men, women, and children were slain in Germany for just such a refusal. In Ireland, in an effort to civilize the barbaric wild Irish, Humphrey Gilbery beheaded some of them and laid their bodies out on the ground for the people to see what would happen to them if they didn't convert. But I'm sure it was really the good news of Jesus Christ, that really won these people over.
Not even Christians were immune to such hideous treatment should they end up on the wrong end of theology. Thomas More disagreed with King Henry VII break from the Catholic church and was an adamant opponent of Martin Luther, for this he was beheaded as a traitor to the crown. Did you know there was a sect of Christianity called the Manichaean's who believed in birth control and for this they were savagely wiped out? Same for the Albigensians, Waldensians, Paulikians, Runcarians, and Josephites. Most of these sects were exterminated. In the 17th century a Catholic mob killed the Protestant leader Gaspard de Coligny. After murdering him they cut off his hands, head, and genitals before dumping him in a river and then decided that being eaten by fish was too good for him so they took him out again and strung his body up in the gallows to be eaten by worms and birds. Yeah, that's some serious Christian love right there.
I knew a lot of this even when I was a Christian because obviously I am a bit of a history buff. My cognitive dissonance was off the charts though because I somehow convinced myself that all those people weren't really Christians. They couldn't be. Who would be okay with murdering innocent people? Except that I understand now that those people loved a god just as much as the ones today. We are appalled by mobs killing people for religious reasons now because it is considered cruel and inhuman. Yet, I know many people who I think are capable of murdering someone in the name of Jesus should societal norms shift in a particular direction. My mother believes that women who have abortions deserve the death penalty. She would be more than willing to support a proposal to say as much and would probably, happily, report on women she knew who had one. And she would do so believing she was doing God's work. That is no different than a woman in ancient times reporting that the family next door is hiding a statue of Aphrodite under their floorboards. I use Christianity in this because that is the religion I know well, but we all know that this kind of behavior is not unique to Christianity. Muslims are notorious for their draconian apostacy laws, which often result in imprisonment and death. I've seen quite a few Hindu mobs in the news lately that are quite disturbing. It saddens me the amount of knowledge that has been lost over the centuries due to religion's fervent desire to be right. I can only dream of a world in which we discover a wealth of Mayan codices hidden away somewhere, revealing a world we will never fully understand without it. And although I am still a closeted atheist and agnostic, I will defy this notion that I have to remain quite forever.
This is a personal, but secret, blog archiving my deconversion from a Christian to a non-believer.