I had the fortune until recently of not knowing that Michael Coren existed, but now that he has been thrust upon my attention by Jerry Coyne’s really hard-hitting “Vacuous Comment of the Week” over at Why Evolution is True, and since, whatever his nationality of origin, Michael Coren writes as a Canadian (for shame! for shame!), I feel the need to venture into the quagmire too, and (mixing metaphors) to hold Michael Coren’s feet to the fire. Let’s start where Jerry starts, with the Amazon.com blurb comment on Coren’s new book: Heresy: Ten Lies They Spread About Christianity:
Michael Coren explores why and how Christians and Christian ideas are caricatured in popular media as well as in sophisticated society. He takes on, and debunks, ten great myths about Christianity: that it supports slavery, is racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic, provokes war, resists progress, and is repressive and irrelevant. In a climate that is increasingly as ignorant of Christianity as it is good at condemning it, Coren gives historical background, provides examples of how these attacks are made, and explains the reality of the Christian response, outlining authentic Christian beliefs.
The interesting thing about this comment is that it is contradicted by statistics. Apparently, in the United States, at least, atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religion than religious believers. Only slightly more than half of Catholics polled knew that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine become substantially the body and blood of Christ when consecrated by a priest! (Google “Atheists and knowledge of religion” for 16 million hits.)
However, there is something even more important to note in the blurb’s claim about Coren’s book. According to Coren, Christianity does not support slavery, is not racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic, does not provoke war, resist progress, and is not repressive or irrelevant. Let’s take them one by one.
First, slavery. Christianity may no longer support slavery, but it is surely significant that the gospel Jesus often tells parables about slaves (δούλος — doulos, in Greek) without any hint of criticism. Indeed, until the 19th century, slavery and Christianity existed quite comfortably together. According to Uta Ranke-Heinemann, in her book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, in its determination to enforce the celibacy of priests, the church quite frequently mandated the enslavement of the wives of priests. Leo IX (who died in 1054), at a Roman Synod, had the wives of priests enslaved for the Lateran Palace (p. 107). The Third Synod Toledo (589) ruled that all clerics who had strange women in their homes were to be punished, while the women were to be sold into slavery (p. 122). (And there are numerous other synods which follow this example.)
Second, racism. This belongs together with antisemitism, since antisemitism is a form of racism, as is clearly shown by the fact that the Jesuit order used to require proof that candidates had blood unmixed by Jewish blood (what a strange concept!), “calculating ancestry to the fifth generation,” as David Kertzer points out in his book about The Popes Against the Jews (p. 207). Christian texts are undeniably deeply antisemitic. Indeed, the division of the Christian Bible bears this antisemitism on their title pages: Old (Jewish) Testament, New (Christian) Testament. This antisemtism is inexpungeable, since it is assumed that the texts themselves are sacred.
Third, sexism. Suggesting that Christianity is not sexist must be meant as a joke. Not only are the Christian texts deeply tainted by sexism — “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2.12 KJV) — but its practice is almost everywhere sexist. The fact that women could be enslaved by the church should be evidence enough that Christianity is deeply sexist. According to Ranke-Heinemann the practice of the church often implied the sexual enslavement of women. For example, according to Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury (1207-1228): “The wife must rather let herself be killed than her husband sin.” (p. 154) This is still the rule, according to the Vatican (or at least it was when Ranke-Heinemann wrote her book Putting Away Childish Things), for according to the pope’s advisor on family affairs, it is better for an HIV positive husband to infect his wife than to wear a condom during intercourse. And this does not even begin to touch the hem of the church’s cloak of misogyny, for women are to be left to die, rather than to abort the foetus which is killing her; women cannot be priests or bishops or popes, because … well, just because. Jesus was a man, after all. A woman’s sacrifice on a cross could not have redeemed mankind.
Fourth, homophobic. This really has got to be a joke! As Ahannasmi says in a comment over at Why Evolution is True:
If I read this right (English is only my second language), the blurb of Mr Coren’s book asserts that the Church is not homophobic, while his article asserts that the Church cannot be “bullied into accepting homosexuality.” Are the writers of these two pieces the same Mr Coren?
This is surely to place the keystone into a well-built arch. Of course Christianity is homophobic, and Coren contradicts himself. Homosexuality is, according to the Bible, an abomination that will consign a person to hell. Calling homosexuality a grave disorder and then saying that homosexuals should be treated with respect is clearly contradictory, for saying that someone is gravely disordered, when they are not, is already to treat them with disrespect. For a wonderful satire which puts Christianity’s homophobia in hilarious perspective, see Deborah Ross’s “Gay Marriage and the Apocalypse: you have been warned.” Or see Nick Cohen’s Observer article: “A Church fit only for hypocrites and bigots.”
Fifth, anti-intellectualism. In one sense this is obviously not true, since Christianity is, unlike many other religions, deeply theological in its self-understanding, and theological systems of great complexity have been created in order to explain and justify Christian belief. On the other hand, there is a tendency to dogmatism in Christianity, displayed clearly by the title of Coren’s book (Heresy) which is deeply antagonistic to intellectual freedom. Indeed, as I have pointed out before, the Vatican’s Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian outlines anti-intellectual principles that are hard to ignore. The Instruction speaks about freedom of research (the sine qua non of intellectual responsibility) as follows:
12. Freedom of research, which the academic community rightly holds most precious, means an openness to accepting the truth that emerges at the end of an investigation in which no element has intruded that is foreign to the methodology corresponding to the object under study.
In theology this freedom of inquiry is the hallmark of a rational discipline whose object is given by Revelation, handed on and interpreted in the Church under the authority of the Magisterium, and received by faith. These givens have the force of principles. To eliminate them would mean to cease doing theology. In order to set forth precisely the ways in which the theologian relates to the Church’s teaching authority, it is appropriate now to reflect upon the role of the Magisterium in the Church.
Clearly, freedom of research is limited by the vigilance (as it is called) of the Magisterium, so that, later the Instruction can say (para 34):
Certainly, it is one of the theologian’s tasks to give a correct interpretation to the texts of the Magisterium and to this end he employs various hermeneutical rules. Among these is the principle which affirms that Magisterial teaching, by virtue of divine assistance, has a validity beyond its argumentation, which may derive at times from a particular theology. As far as theological pluralism is concerned, this is only legitimate to the extent that the unity of the faith in its objective meaning is not jeopardized.(28) Essential bonds link the distinct levels of unity of faith, unity-plurality of expressions of the faith, and plurality of theologies. The ultimate reason for plurality is found in the unfathomable mystery of Christ who transcends every objective systematization. This cannot mean that it is possible to accept conclusions contrary to that mystery and it certainly does not put into question the truth of those assertions by which the Magisterium has declared itself.(29) As to the “parallel magisterium”, it can cause great spiritual harm by opposing itself to the Magisterium of the Pastors. Indeed, when dissent succeeds in extending its influence to the point of shaping; a common opinion, it tends to become the rule of conduct. This cannot but seriously trouble the People of God and lead to contempt for true authority. (30)
Those words – ”a validity beyond its argumentation” — say all that needs to be said about Christianity’s anti-intellectualism. And if the mystery of Christ is truly unfathomable, as this says, it is hard to think how a conclusion could be known to be “contrary to that mystery.”
Sixth, anti-Semitism. Already dealt with under racism above.
Seventh, does not provoke war. The trouble with making general claims of the kind made by the blurb, and presumably by Coren’s book — which I have no intention of reading — life is too short as it is — is that there are bound to be counterexamples. While the crusades are reasonably thought to be a response to Muslim invasion of lands once in the hands of Christians, it is scarcely possible to deny that the church preached the crusades. Nor is it possible to deny the church’s role in the Albegensian Crusade, or in the many appeals to Christians to fight in wars of practically every description. Nor can it be doubted that Christians have assumed, even when they were fighting each other, that the god of Christians was on their side. In light of this it would be exceedingly hard to justify the claim that Christianity does not, has never, will never, provoke war. Indeed, the wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries were all provoked by Christianity.
Eighth, does not resist progress. One need only point to Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors in order to rebut this claim — of which the eightieth error condemned is this:
The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.
Whether, as Michael Coren apparently claims, based on the excerpted bit of his book in the Catholic Register, the church has not impeded scientific progress, is true or not, may be open to question, since, indeed, until fairly recently, most scientists have been Christian believers (and many are still so), and science did arise within a largely Christian Europe in disarray over religious differences.* Nevertheless, there seems to be little doubt that the contribution of Christian belief to scientific exploration and discovery is miniscule. Newton may have been a Christian, but he was an Arian Christian, who did not believe in the Trinity, which he believed was the creation of the anti-Christ the Catholic Church, and his laws of motion, although giving appropriate tribute to his god, even giving it a bit of work to do from time to time, are formulated without so much as a nod in the direction of Christian theology. Christian theology, as the quote above from the CDF’s Instruction indicates, cannot accept anything which is in logical tension with itself. Thus, Pope Karol Józef Wojtyła held, contary to the theory of evolution, not only that evolution is guided by god, but also that god intervened directly in the process to create human beings with souls, which are not animals in the ordinary sense, but ontologically distinct from all other life-forms on earth. This belief is clearly at odds with the discoveries of science, and, given any pressure at all, could easily impede scientific progress.
Ninth, is not repressive. Tell that to the nuns in the United States, or to women in countries where the church has managed to criminalise abortion, or to the dying, where the church continues to interfere with attempts to legalise assisted dying — all evil forms of absolutism and theocracy which make of the church, as it makes of most religions, enemies of truth and freedom.
And, tenth, is not irrelevant. Well, of course it’s irrelevant! It’s not true! How much more irrelevant can you get?!
*In my view it is precisely this disarray, and the consequent intellectual ferment of dissent and revision, that is the main source of the scientific revolution, and not Christianity or Christian faith as such.