As those who have read this blog from the beginning may remember, I have had a few run-ins with defensive atheists who took umbrage at being referred to as irrational for failing to fully embrace the sociopathy of the truly godless. In almost every case, those atheists who wrote to me criticized Christianity for being responsible for the “millions” of individuals killed by the Inquisition, which they regard to be one of the most monstrous institutions in human history.
I stated at the time that this only demonstrated their historical ignorance, as contrary to the cluelessness of the masses, historians have long known that the Inquisition was a markedly human institution, a civilizing force and one that was relatively innocent of bloodshed. This sounds like blasphemy to those who have gotten the bulk of their Inquisitional history from Monty Python instead of source material in the original Latin, but there is no certainty so self-assured as the arrogance of the ignorant. Now, copious and conclusive evidence has been released which demonstrates that these atheists are not only irrational, but downright uneducated.
In 1998 the Vatican opened the archives of the Holy Office (the modern successor to the Inquisition) to a team of 30 scholars from around the world. Now at last the scholars have made their report, an 800-page tome that was unveiled at a press conference in Rome on Tuesday. Its most startling conclusion is that the Inquisition was not so bad after all. Torture was rare and only about 1 percent of those brought before the Spanish Inquisition were actually executed. As one headline read “Vatican Downsizes Inquisition.”
The amazed gasps and cynical sneers that have greeted this report are just further evidence of the lamentable gulf that exists between professional historians and the general public. The truth is that, although this report makes use of previously unavailable material, it merely echoes what numerous scholars have previously learned from other European archives. Among the best recent books on the subject are Edward Peters’s Inquisition (1988) and Henry Kamen’s The Spanish Inquisition (1997), but there are others. Simply put, historians have long known that the popular view of the Inquisition is a myth….
Compared to other medieval secular courts, the Inquisition was positively enlightened. Why then are people in general and the press in particular so surprised to discover that the Inquisition did not barbecue people by the millions? First of all, when most people think of the Inquisition today what they are really thinking of is the Spanish Inquisition. No, not even that is correct. They are thinking of the myth of the Spanish Inquisition. Amazingly, before 1530 the Spanish Inquisition was widely hailed as the best run, most humane court in Europe. There are actually records of convicts in Spain purposely blaspheming so that they could be transferred to the prisons of the Spanish Inquisition. After 1530, however, the Spanish Inquisition began to turn its attention to the new heresy of Lutheranism. It was the Protestant Reformation and the rivalries it spawned that would give birth to the myth.
The 763-page report states that approximately 1,250 sentences of death were meted out, around one percent of the 125,000 heresy trials, over a period of 356 years. Accounting for population differences, it was thus about one-half as deadly on an annual basis as children’s bicycles in the United States. (This about one-quarter of the 6,000 deaths usually estimated by academic historians, however the larger number refers to the entire Inquisition, not only the Spanish.) Keep this in mind the next time that an atheist wishes to lecture you on the historical crimes of Christianity. The world will be fortunate indeed if the determinedly secular experiment of the newly constitutional (if still unratified) European Union should turn out to be one-tenth as civilized as the dread Spanish Inquisition.