12/07/2010 02:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Should Christianity Be Blamed for Torture?

A recent posting on a popular atheist website highlighted the sordid history of torture in the name of the Christian religion. The use of torture by Christians -- or anyone, for that matter -- to motivate people to change their beliefs, admit they hold heretical beliefs or convince them to change their religion is all but incomprehensible today. Who could imagine, for example, a chamber in the basement of the corner church where parishioners would have their thumbs crushed unless they recanted their support for gay marriage, or gave up their belief in infant baptism?

The posting, which included a most engaging and disturbing collection of photos of torture devices, asked a simple question: "Catholics, this used to be the business of your church, and not just in Europe. How much pain would have been spared had there not been faith?"
The responders, with some notable exceptions, were clearly sympathetic. "Religion at its finest" noted one. Another responded with a simple, if curious, "Delightful."

Secularists eager to discredit Christianity have gotten a lot of mileage out of the sordid history of torture by the Inquisition and other Christian bodies. (Protestants objecting that the Inquisition was a Catholic enterprise should note the case of Michael Servetus, who was convicted of heresy by the French Inquisition and sentenced to be burned with his books. He escaped and the Catholics contented themselves with burning his books and an effigy. En route to Italy, Servetus stopped in Geneva, Switzerland, which was under the control of John Calvin. Identified as a heretic on the run while listening to Calvin preach, Servetus was arrested and, at the end of October 1553, Calvin had him burned to death.)

Secularists love these stories. Accounts of torture abound in Andrew Dickson White's anti-religion polemic A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology within Christendom. In The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski introduces his discussion of Galileo's famous trial before the Roman Inquisition with a graphic first-person account of someone who had been tortured on the rack and survived. The issue is a rhetorically powerful weapon against religion.

To an informed citizen of the modern world, the use of torture to find the truth, extract confession or coerce belief is repugnant. We are repelled -- if voyeuristically intrigued -- by scenes like the cruel torture and execution of Mel Gibson's William Wallace in the movie Braveheart. To contemplate such horror is to imagine a time that is no more, a time whose institutions must surely have outlived their legitimacy and, like bows and arrows, are no longer in common usage. But the religious institutions that put Servetus and Giordano Bruno to death and Galileo to his knees are still with us, as their detractors are only too willing to remind us.

In such discussions, however, we easily forget that torture has been practiced by nearly all civilized nations since ancient times and carried out by both secular and religious institutions within those societies. In many countries, juries are now used to get at the truth -- a valued commodity worth some effort to obtain -- but juries are a relatively new development. Before there were juries, it was the task of judges, both secular and religious, to find the truth somehow, often within a complex maze of conflicting and vague testimonies. It was great when the truth emerged naturally in the course of the investigation. But sometimes it did not and torture was employed as "the only means of relieving the judicial conscience." There was a consensus that torture was far from perfect and should not be hastily inaugurated. And there were rules. The rules for Galileo's trial prohibited the torture of prisoners who were 70 or older, which probably explains why Galileo added a year to his age when he appeared, rather than noting that he was 69 years old.

Both secular and religious institutions employed torture. The popular impression that it was primarily a religious activity indicates the success of the anti-religion culture warriors telling their sensationalized version of history. The reality is that secular torture was far more common, with far crueler and more ingenious techniques than its religious counterpart.
This does not excuse the behavior of the church in the past but it certainly undermines the argument that religion is the most pathological institution in society. Far from being a unique poison spreading to all of society, religion is shown once again to reflect the values of society at large -- for better or worse -- but with a reforming impulse in the right direction.