Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History by Rodney Stark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If even a small part of this book is true, it will force you to rethink a lifetime of history you have taken for granted. I can’t tell yet whether I believe all or even most of the claims, but from now on I’ll be reading all history books more skeptically.
Much of the argument is based on the observation that for the past 500 years, Protestant cultures had incentives to portray Catholic history as negatively as possible. You could win fame and fortune, perhaps even employment at a prestigious job, if you showed something bad about Catholics and Catholic countries. During much of the 1500s and 1600s, newly-Protestant England was the enemy of Catholic Spain, so for patriotic reasons any voice of disapproval was amplified. Historians quote one another, so even if you were an atheist, you would find a sympathetic audience for anything you wrote negatively about pre-Protestant European history.
Here are a few of the eye-opening claims:
There never was a “Dark Ages”. The term was coined and popularized by post-Renaissance anti-religious thinkers who wanted to exaggerate their own importance. In fact, Europe was constantly innovating and getting better after the Roman Empire fell.
Anti-semitism was always condemned by the Catholic Church, which taught that Jews were God’s chosen people. There is little or no recorded violence against Jews for the first thousand years of Church history, and after that it was the Church who protected Jews. Anti-semitism was strongest in areas where the church was weakest.
The Spanish Inquisition sentenced to death only 10 people per year throughout the entire period 1480-1700, according to recent scholarship based on the original archives. (Compare that to Henry VIII England, which hung and beheaded 750 / year). Torture was almost never used, since Church Law forbid sessions more than 15 minutes and no blood could be shed. Most of what we (think we) know about the Inquisition is misinformation spread by a disgruntled monk who gained fame by embellishing his stories after fleeing to the Netherlands.
Galileo was punished for betrayal of his friendship with the Pope, not for making a scientific claim, which was already well-known and believed at the time thanks to Copernicus and many others.
The Crusades were fought to ensure access to the Holy Land by European Christians, who were regularly persecuted and killed on the pilgrimages they’d been making for a thousand years. Remember, the Holy Land was Christian by choice for 500 years before Muslim invaders forced them to convert.
The Catholic Church condemned slavery throughout history. Even in the US, the Catholic-majority places (like Louisiana) saw higher manumission than Protestant majority states.
I’m eager to hear more, especially any rebuttals from historians who know more than I do, but I found the arguments compelling and definitely worth a followup.
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