As I've mentioned before, I'm spending a good deal of my free time over Christmas break reading Doubt, a history, by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I highly recommend it, as it's descriptions of the ideas of doubters (both believers and disbelievers) have been very gratifying to read and sometimes challenging to my own ideas.
Something I read today--actually just a few moments ago, triggered an idea in my head for a theory that has been brewing for some time now, every since I've read about the incitements of Christianity that were written in the last couple of centuries by the likes of Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, and Anne Newport Royall. According to Hecht,
In [Royall's] The Black Book (1828), she scorned the missionaries swarming "like locusts" across America, stumping for cash, and getting it, often from the poorest and most sadly superstitious people. She warned that if the champions of a national religion managed to "get two-thirds of the states to alter the Constitution...then let the people get their throats ready . . ."
In Royall's own words:
Do they think we have forgotten how they [the Church] drenched England in blood, created a civil war, (what they are in a fair way to do here) and, when they could no longer retain the power of killing there, came over to this country, and began it afresh--dipping their hands in the blood of a harmless, unresisting people?..Do they think we have forgotten how they put innocent men, women, and children to death, in cool blood, under the pretense of witchcraft?...Children of ten years of age were put to death; young girls were stripped naked (by God's people, the ministers) and the marks of witchcraft searched for, on their bodies, with the most indecent curiosity.
This doesn't sound like the Christianity I grew up with. In my Church and home it was the love of God that was emphasized, and Hell was scarcely ever mentioned-though it was believed in. I was told that you cannot expect true conversions to happen though the use of coercion and fear. I suspect that this much is true. But how have we come to this point of a warm, all loving, daddy God after all the coercion and bloodshed of the past?
I have a theory that when scientific advances push back religious explanations of the world, when there is a lot of cultural and religious plurality, and when the Church (both Catholic and the various forms of Protestantism) does not have the power to force belief (or, at least, consent--if that is the right word for it), then God gets nicer. This, I think, is because under such circumstances a benevolent view of God is vital for the very survival of the Church.
I thought of this before I went looking through Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason for support, I found that he had some very similar thoughts (which may have actually triggered my own thinking on the subject about a year ago, but I'm not sure). Here is what he had to say:
Some Christians pretend that Christianity was not established by the sword; but of what period of time to they speak? It is impossible that twelve men would begin with the sword; they had not the power; but no sooner were the professors of Christianity sufficiently powerful to employ the sword than they did so, and the stake and fagot, too; and Mahomet could do it no sooner. By the same spirit that Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's servant (if the story be true), he would have cut off his head, and the head of his master, had he been able.
I think this is a good thing to keep in mind in a day when the religious right is doing all they can to knock down the wall between church and state. I couldn't help but think of the present situation in America when I read that quote from Royall about the religious right of her day changing the Constitution. That could have been written yesterday . . . even in the loving and somewhat tolerant Christian atmosphere in which I was raised, I shudder at the possibility of the Church taking over the state once again. Would God remain so kind and loving if the Church was, once again, all powerful?
I have heard the defense that the evils done in the name of Christianity were not really done by "Christians," but by bad people who were in control of the Church (usually meaning the Catholic church, though grisly persecutions were commited by the Reformers as well). However, this creates the problem of defining exactly what a "Christian" is--if you simply remove any "people who did bad things in the name of Christianity" from the definition, I guess the defense would be right. But redefining the terms to fit your belief is a cop-out.
Since I am flipping through The Age of Reason to find quotes and refresh my memory, I thought I'd end this post with another quote from Tom Paine on the topic of understanding Christianity and the Bible:
It has happened that all the answers which I have seen to the former part of "The Age of Reason" have been written by priests; and these pious men, like their predecessors, contend and wrangle, and understand the Bible; each understands it differently, but each understands it best; and they have agreed in nothing but in telling their readers that Thomas Paine understands it not.