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A review of Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry. By Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett.

Mar 18, 2003

Encounter Books, 2002.

As the Western world grows increasingly secular, the attacks on religion in general and Christianity in particular become ever more shrill and pronounced. Christianity especially has long been the object of ridicule, criticism and ostracism. Of course much of that is earned. But much is not. This new book looks at some of the major critiques of Christianity, and offers some telling responses.

All the usual criticisms are examined in detail: What about the Crusades? Isn’t the Bible at odds with science? Didn’t Christians support the Nazis? Isn’t Christianity sexist, racist, imperialist, etc.? These and other common objections are given careful attention.

Consider the case of the Spanish Inquisition. By all accounts, this was nasty business. But a sense of perspective is in order. A careful examination of the historical record reveals that at tops, around 2000 people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition. This is 2000 too many. But this works out to an average of less than 3 people a year during the 16th and 17th centuries. A far cry less than the many millions a year killed in the name of godless communism or ruthless fascism.

Similar things can be said about the Salem witch trials. There just were not that many of them. And many of the Christian leaders – Puritans included – were opposed to them. While religious leaders believed in witches, so did everyone else of the day. But it was often ministers who opposed the trials. Cotton Mather went so far as to say it was “better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned”.

Other criticisms of Christianity are covered at length: Christianity leads to environmental degradation, or a suppression of human rights and freedoms. But the criticisms are not the sole focus of this book. In addition, the positive contributions of Christianity to the world are also canvassed. Meaty chapters examine the influence for good which the Christian church has been responsible for over the centuries.

One example is the rise of charity and benevolent societies. While charity was practiced on occasion before Christianity arrived on the scene, it became the norm instead of the exception for the new-found faith. More than one cynical critic of the early Christians was forced to admit that these believers practiced what they preached, and were serious about applying the words of their Lord on the issue of wealth and poverty.

This could especially be seen when major epidemics broke out. The standard response of the pagans was to flee. The ones who stayed and tended the sick and needy were Christians. This concern for the poor and the afflicted was largely responsible for the tremendous growth of Christianity during its early centuries. Many people converted to Christianity based on the caring and compassionate response of believers in the face of suffering, sickness and death.

The authors also examine the issue of the relationship between religion and science. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity has more to do with the spread of knowledge and science than its hindrance. Yes there were times when the church blocked progress in intellectual discovery and scientific enterprise, but they make up the exceptions to the rule. Even many secular thinkers have noted that it was the Christian world view that in so many ways made the rise of modern science possible.

The world view of the Roman Empire was syncretistic, fatalistic and superstitious. This made poor ground for scientific inquiry to grow and flourish in. However, the biblical Christian worldview was much more conducive to scientific progress.

For example, the cyclical view of history of pagan Rome was replaced by the linear conception of history in Christianity. Christians believed in an orderly, purposeful world which had a sense of direction and meaning, something which the scientific mind could tap into and explore. A perspective which viewed the world with purpose and meaning waiting to be discovered was much different than a fatalistic and cyclical view of history which offered little incentive to those who were scientifically motivated.

True, scientific advance did take root in two other cultures: the Islamic world and China. But in both the efforts stalled, and it was only in the Christianised West that science continued to develop. Bear in mind, for example, that it was Western technology and know-how that discovered and utilised the oil that sat for millennia in Middle Eastern (Muslim) deserts.

Other achievements of Christianity are covered, including the relationship between Christianity and Western democracy, and the struggle against slavery. All in all, the Christian religion has been a force of tremendous good in the world. Yes, it has contributed its share of misery and grief, but one can argue that these blemishes are not inherent in New Testament Christianity, but in its perversion.

Attacks on the Christian religion will continue. But many of the standard objections to the faith turn out, on closer inspection, to be not so damaging at all. Often, they are based on misinformation or selective use of the historical record. Despite its many shortcomings, the Christian religion has much to be proud of; the “overlooked side of the ledger” as the authors put it.

In sum, the world is a better place because of Christianity. Were it not for the Christian religion, the world during the past two millennia would arguably have been “crueler, poorer and more provincial, as well as less democratic, creative and informed – in a word, less civilised”. This book makes this case dispassionately but convincingly.

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