Lighting the Fires of the Inquisition: Sam Harris on Christian Teaching and Practice

In the Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris writes: “If you think Christianity is the most direct and undefiled expression of love and compassion the world has ever seen, you do not know much about the world’s other religions. Take the religion of Jainism as one example. The Jains preach a doctrine of utter nonviolence. While the Jains believe many improbable things about the universe, they do not believe the sorts of things that lit the fires of the Inquisition. You probably think the Inquisition was a perversion of the “true” spirit of Christianity. Perhaps it was. The problem, however, is that the teachings of the Bible are so muddled and self-contradictory that it was possible for Christians to happily burn heretics alive for five long centuries.”[i]

Let’s take each claim made here in turn. First is the idea that the ethics of Jainism is better than Christianity. Why is non-violence the highest standard of love and compassion? Is it wrong to defend one’s own against aggressors? If your wife were being assaulted, would it be loving to not defend her from her aggressors? Probably the opposite of loving. Non-violence is not always synonymous with love. It is not always wrong to use violence, and non-violence itself is not even close to being love. Non-violence is like a prerequisite of love and compassion, not identical with it! It is like the first step, the most basic step that needs to be taken in order to be loving and compassionate. It is by no means love and compassion by itself. What about the duty to the poor and the downtrodden? Why is that not mentioned as a central duty of Jains as it is in Christianity? There is nothing about charity in the main principles or the “Five Vows” of the Jains. There is also nothing about charity in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path in Buddhism or if there is, it is implicit and is not regarded as a central duty. According to BBC Religions ,“ In practical terms the biggest part that ahimsa plays in the lives of lay Jains today is in the regulation of their diet.” In other words, Ahimsa seems very negative a doctrine, especially in it’s typical practical application. So Jainism  does not compare as well to Christianity as Harris might have believed at first.

Let’s go to the second part of the quote: “While the Jains believe many improbable things about the universe, they do not believe the sorts of things that lit the fires of the Inquisition.” Harris is comparing the beliefs of Jains to what was done in the name of Christianity. Is that equivalent? You must compare the teachings of the Jains with the teachings of Christianity in order for it to be a fair comparison. If you compare the teachings of the Jains with the behaviour of some Christian followers, that’s clearly irrational, because you’re comparing the ideals or the theory of one religion with the behaviour or practice of (some) adherents of a different religion in order to evaluate which religion is better in terms of its ethics. Sure, Harris says that the Jains don’t believe the type of thing which could light the fires of the inquisition. But he does not tell us which Christian beliefs are supposed to have lit the fires of the inquisition. In the New Testament, the worst punishment that the Apostles and Jesus himself recommends to Christians to do to heretics, apostates and those who are impenitently immoral, is excommunication. So Harris needs to tell us which teachings of Christianity lit the fires of the inquisition. I suppose Harris believes that these Christians could justify their practices by reference to the Old Testament penal code. The typical capital punishment in the Old Testament is stoning, not burning. Also, there is never in all the Bible a recommendation of torture. The brutal punishments we see in the medieval period (which, by the way, is nothing out of ordinary for that time in history), probably has more to do with the strong Roman influence on Canon law, than on Biblical justification. In addition, it should be noted here that all ideologies are perverted by political power, because as soon as an ideology becomes hegemonic, it becomes a tool and a club of the greedy and power hungry. Jainism as a religion has not had much political power, and if it is incontrovertible so that those who come to power must justify their actions in terms of it, I can guarantee you that people would find all sorts of creative ways to justify their own designs in its name. It is true that the Bible can sometimes be hard to understand, but that doesn’t mean there are not clear themes and fundamentals to its teaching. It doesn’t mean that the Bible is “muddled and self-contradictory.” 66 books, written by different authors, and spanning two to three thousand years, in different literary genres, will sometimes be difficult to understand, whether it is inspired or not.

Harris later on attempts to give some evidence for the idea that Christian teachings “lit the fires of the inquisition” as he put it. He claims that the New Testament is violent by appealing to passages which report the judgment or punishment of God against unbelievers. By appealing to Jesus’s description of divine judgment, he says “If we take Jesus in half his moods, we can easily justify the actions of St. Francis of Assisi or martin Luther King, Jr. Taking the other half, we can justify the inquisition.”[ii] How does God’s judgment justify the inquisition? Simply because God judges evil people, doesn’t mean that we can aggrandize ourselves and sit on God’s place to do the same. Indeed, we are told this in so many words, in Romans 12:19 “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” The act judging and punishing wrongdoing is God’s alone, for the most part. As already discussed, Christians have some part in this through rebuke and excommunication.

One of the things that God is expected to do is ensure justice, but we are not to think, and are specifically prohibited from thinking in this passage, that it is our job to do it for God. So the mere fact that Jesus tells us there will be judgment most certainly does not imply that he commands individual Christians to do it, especially when the active party in that judgment is always depicted as God himself ( and sometimes angels). Harris will need to make clearer how the declaration of God’s judgment implies a command to Christians to kill or torture people. The logic here is extremely tenuous. In fact, the logic is non-existent. Harris doesn’t even try to make the supposed connection explicit.

As for the claim that it is unjust that God judge unbelievers, let us call to mind what Harris said at the beginning of the chapter. After summarizing Christian beliefs, he says “If the basic doctrine of Christianity is correct, I have misused my life in the worst conceivable way. I admit this without a single caveat.”[iii] So Harris does recognize that he has committed a grave sin if Christianity is true. If Christianity is true, then refusing to follow Jesus is the worst sin meriting the worst punishment. But more importantly, if Christianity is true, then God knows better than you what sin merits which punishment. As we’ve already covered, If God is God, then he has a responsibility to ensure justice and this will involve punishing people for doing evil, and if God does exist, that means he is the greatest instantiation of the Good, which means that refusing to serve him and to recognize him as God is the greatest evil.

Harris also compares the violence in the Bible to these other religions. He refers to the violence in the New Testament, although what violence he’s referring to here is unclear ( as we’ve already discussed). There is violence in the Old Testament at God’s behest. But if God is sovereign and he always determines when and how people will die, why should it be strange that he determines specific people will die? If God exists, he is not accountable to the same moral standards as we are. Given that he is God, he has to ensure that justice is done and he has to judge evil people, which will sometimes involve killing them. If you think this is wrong, you probably believe that the Second World War was justified in some way, and you probably believe that someone who had the opportunity to kill Hitler should have done so. So, it’s okay for human beings to do it but not God, who knows better than human beings what is good and what it just? That is what it comes down to. All that someone reveals when he argues in this way is that he has already assumed that God cannot exist, because he believes that God must agree fully with him about morality. However, if God agrees fully with you about morality, then that would require you to be morally perfect and your moral intuitions to be perfectly accurate. Is that likely? To believe that God exists is to believe that there exists a being who knows much better than you what is right and good. If you believe that if God exists, he must have ideas about morality that are identical or mostly the same as yours, then your argument has effectively assumed that God does not exist, which means it’s circular. Think about the concept of a perfectly and infinitely good being. If you think your own notion of morality and your moral character will even approach this, then you either have delusions of grandeur or you don’t fully understand the concept. Read the news. Read some history. Read about the horrific evils humanity continually perpetrates. We don’t even see those who wish to do evil and fantasize about it but are prevented from doing it because of various constraints or simply their own cowardice. If that seems evil to us, think of how intolerable it must be to a morally perfect being. Is it strange to think that this being might sometimes choose annihilation as the preferable route, at least in certain circumstances? No it is not.

Harris continues: “It was even possible for the most venerated patriarchs of the Church, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to conclude that heretics should be tortured ( Augustine) or killed outright ( Aquinas). Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews and witches.”[iv]

I will assume all of this is true. He provides no citation for these claims, which makes it difficult to verify. First off, Sam Harris calls Martin Luther or Aquinas and Augustine and others the “the most influential figures” of Christianity. But this is not true. The most influential figures of Christianity are probably the Apostles who wrote the New Testament, none of whom advocated the murder of heretics. Secondly, being influential does not mean one is right. That is why we have a Bible against which to measure the words of other Christians. And it stands that in the New Testament, as already pointed out, the worst that was done to heretics is excommunication, and nothing worse was ever advocated there. Thirdly, Harris skips over the many other venerated Christian thinkers who did not advocate these things. Fourth, these figures are influential, at least today, not because they advocated those things but because of different things they said about theology. And if Harris believes that if someone says something wrong, they must be scrapped completely, then he must be careful who he quotes with approval. Almost any historical figure that had some influence on the world, especially the further back you go, you will be able to dig up some quote or action that puts them in a very unfavourable light. Finally, it is not difficult, especially when you are a political body with a monopoly on the interpretation of the Bible, to selectively read it and emphasize what suits state authority, and ignoring what does not. It is also not surprising that those figures that emphasize authoritarian state action should become the recommended voices. It is not sensible to say that because there were Christians who believed in enforcing Christianity as theocracy ( which is not an idea found in the New Testament) that therefore these people are the standard of what Christianity is, and the best instantiation of what Christianity teaches. Harris provides no argument for this strange conclusion. He simply assumes it because it fits his argument to do so.

[i] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006) Kindle Edition. p. 11

[ii] Ibid., 14

[iii] Ibid.,11

[iv] Ibid., 11

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