History and Method and Criticism of Religion
Atheist Delusions (Yale University Press: 2009), pp. 33-34.
Hence modernity’s first great attempt to define itself: an 'age of reason' emerging from and overthrowing an 'age of faith'. Behind this definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale. Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma. All was darkness. ¶ Then, in the wake of the ‘wars of religion’ that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowing of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion. ¶ This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail. This tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, 'intellectual journalism,' and vulgar legend.
"Christianity's Despicable History" on the CPXtra blog at PublicChristianity.com (Oct 31, 2009).
Christians have to acknowledge just how serious is the complaint today that the church acted despicably throughout its history. This is not just a Roman Catholic problem, with their Crusades and Inquisitions. Protestants have their own dark history. Martin Luther, the German founder of Protestantism, wrote the most awful things about European Jews in his 1543 tract “The Jews and Their Lies”. John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition and one of my favourite theologians, was brutal in his treatment of heretics like Michael Servetus, whom he had executed in 1553. The case is serious. But there is also something wrong with most modern versions of the complaint. First, retellings of the evils of Christianity frequently involve gross exaggerations in popular discussion. This is the product of an unnoticed propaganda. ... [E]very new era retells the past in a way that elevates its own position as the great deliverer, the bringer of special freedoms; and that necessarily requires exaggerating, even lying, about the horrors of the past. We do this on a small scale when we talk about the moralism of the 1950s or the prudishness of Victorian England. It happened on a macro scale in the 18th-19th centuries ... when Enlightenment leaders popularised the expression 'Dark Ages'. Here was an attempt to describe the era of Christendom as an era of oppression, ignorance and violence, as opposed to the era of freedom and peace brought about by secular reason. No serious historian today could go along with this story. ... I ... ask readers to contemplate an important insight. Experts aside, most of us have picked up our knowledge of the Crusades, the Inquisitions and other horrors of Christendom from sources other than respectable academic literature. Is it not possible that we have simply accepted mere propaganda as fact?