Hellfire and Broomsticks

Isn’t it amazing what ‘righteous’ Christians believe, and are capable of, when they’re convinced they have the infallible Word of God on their side?

The idea is nothing new to me, or to many others, but  Sam Harris‘  The End of Faith, has rammed it home lately.

In it, Harris details some of the more “transcendent level[s] of cruelty” achieved by the Righteous in medieval Spain.

You may be bound to a bench, with a cauldron filled with mice placed upside down upon your bare abdomen. With the requisite application of heat to the iron, the mice will begin to burrow into your belly in search of an exit.

Should you, while in extremis, admit to your torturers that you are indeed a heretic, a sorcerer, or a witch, you will be made to confirm your story before a judge, and any attempt to recant, to claim that your confession has been coerced through torture, will deliver you either to your tormentors once again, or directly to the stake.

If, once condemned, you repent of your sins, these compassionate and learned men, whose concern for the fate of your soul really knows no bounds, will do you the kindness of strangling you, before lighting your pyre.

These everyday practices of yesteryear may sound like they sprang from the imagination of psychopaths or the most extreme splatter movie writers.

The Spanish Inquisition

But the Catholic Church, with men of God at the helm, condoned them wholeheartedly.  Apparently, The Holy Inquisition began in 1184, under Pope Lucius III, to crush the popular movement of Catharism.  It took, according to Harris, ‘rather genteel’ steps at first to extract confessions. Then the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, condoned the use of torture. This thanks to St Augustine, who reasoned that if torture was appropriate for those who broke the laws of men, it was even more fitting for those who broke the word of God.
The Church didn’t officially condemn the use of torture until the Bull of Pope Pius VII in 1816. The last auto-de-fé  , a public spectacle of penance which usually ended with burning at the stake, took place in Mexico in 1850.

Meantime, many thousands of witches confessed to consorting with the devil, and misfit innocents of all sorts burned at the stake.

All this meting out of Justice to unbelievers  is condoned in the bible. Harris refers to the biblical book of Deutoronomy as the  ‘pre-eminent text in every Inquisitor’s cannon’.

That good book ( Ch 13:6-10 ) contains the following directions ( with apologies for  the language, this is the King James version ) ;

IF they brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou nor thy Fathers

Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth, even unto the other end of earth

Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:

And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God …

However, one heretic at a time may not suffice. Later in the same book are encouragements to put entire cities to the sword ( Crusade anyone? )

If thou shalt hear say in one of thou cities which the Lord God has given thee to dwell there, saying

Certain men, the children of Belial, are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known:

Then shalt thou enquire, and make search and ask diligently, and behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you

Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of thy sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword

The New Testament

Moderate Christians might say that this work of Stone Age desert-dwellers should be ignored in favour of the message of love and compassion in the new testament, written by more enlightened men of the Iron Age. Here we find such gems as

Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you

And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels

In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ

Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power – 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9

Harris, though, doesn’t confine the glare of his sharp wit and supremely rational morality to Christians. Muslims, Jews, and others who suspend disbelief in favour of fairy-tales are also targeted.

I may write more from those chapters later. Meanwhile, all this Biblical malarkey is conjuring unpleasant memories of sunny afternoons inside reading texts from men who still believed the Earth was flat.

Tolerance and Faith

I’ll leave you with this thought from Will Durant, quoted by Harris.

Intolerance is the natural concomitant of strong faith. Tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty. Certainty is murderous.

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