Faithless Fairy Tales


By Jeff Laird

Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton came to nearly identical opinions about the odd nature of truth: it's sometimes stranger than fiction, because fiction is purposefully made to fit our preferences. Unfortunately, that makes it easy to transplant fiction in place of fact, then use those fictions to justify the original preferences. This is particularly common with respect to history, where critics of religion have an insatiable appetite for fiction, often at the expense of truth. Snubbing easily discovered facts, some skeptics choose instead to deal in faithless fairy tales.

An almost too-perfect example of this occurred in the first episode of the new TV series Cosmos. The stylized depiction of Giordano Bruno was so slanted, so historically simplistic, and so blatantly misrepresented, that it became one of the more discussed points of that episode. Such a biased presentation doesn't add up as an effort to provide historical context…but it does make sense as deliberate attempt to slam religion. Cosmos portrayed Bruno as a humble philosopher, persecuted for his freethinking science. In reality, Bruno was a Dominican friar who caustically and overtly denied major theological doctrines of his own church.

History says Bruno was a polarizing figure on the wrong end of a deep theological dispute; Cosmos re-branded him as a martyr for the cause of science. This is hardly the first time Bruno's been used as such; a hallmark of these faithless fairy tales is in their constant re-telling, despite all evidence to the contrary. Accepting the pop culture caricature is like trusting the movie Braveheart as your reference point for the life of William Wallace.

Separating facts from fairy tales is important, because it's irrational to come to a negative view of anything in response to caricatures, rather than actual historical events. Among the most common faithless fairy tales I encounter are Galileo, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Scopes Monkey Trial. Historical information on these is not terribly difficult to find. Even a brief check of secular history shows the fairy tale version is simply untrue. Yet their mythical retellings persist. The next four articles in the series will each be devoted to one of these misguided myths.

For now, here are summaries of these skeptical tall tales, followed by a brief synopsis of their actual accounts. First off is Giordano Bruno, who, thanks to Cosmos, is sure to become a new favorite of the religious critic.

Note carefully, the point is certainly not to justify any of these historical events. Incidents like the Crusades and the Inquisition ought to be criticized, and then some, but only according to what actually happened, not a juiced-up tabloid version. Similarly, no particular attempt is being made here to paint Catholicism in a bad light; the fact that the Catholic Church figures in most of these incidents simply is what it is.


The Myth: Once upon a time, repressed philosopher Giordano Bruno dared believe the scientific view of multiple universes, and secretly read books which threatened Catholic dogma. After much persecution, he was burned at the stake for refusing to recant his stance on scientific issues.

The Truth: Bruno was a Dominican friar, part of an order of intellectuals and philosophers within the Catholic Church. Bruno had a reputation for being obnoxious and contentious, and often had to relocate after grossly offending enough people. His choice of scientific positions was entirely based on his preference for a materialistic universe. Despite being part of the Dominican order, he routinely disputed core Catholic theologies, denigrated revealed religion, and advocated pantheism and various Egyptian spiritual concepts. After years of this, he was brought up on charges of heresy, for which he was executed.

A person might well object to the Catholic Church's handling of heretics, but the full truth makes it clear Bruno's theology, not his science, caused the conflict. His belief in multiple universes was motivated by philosophical preference, not empirical observations. And he was hardly a docile, humble person quietly pursuing knowledge. It was long years of blatant heresy and an insufferable attitude that led the Catholic Church to respond.


The Myth: Galileo's telescopes proved that the Earth orbits the sun, which contradicts the Bible. Because he chose science over religious belief, Galileo was excommunicated, thrown in prison, and his work covered up.

The Truth: Galileo spent nearly seven years discussing his models with Catholic scientists, who would not change their interpretation without empirical proof. Unfortunately, Galileo's model didn't perfectly match observations, something he acknowledged. After years of discussion, he was instructed not to teach Heliocentrism as fact, but was allowed to discuss it as a theory. More than 16 years later, a new Pope asked Galileo to write a book discussing the opposing views. The result was widely interpreted as an attack on the Pontiff. After this, Galileo was placed under house arrest and his writings banned, though he was able to continue his research. Galileo never wavered in his belief that the Bible was infallible and inerrant, seeing no contradiction between his work and scripture.

Again, one could easily vilify how the Catholic Church handled Galileo, but one can't reasonably say this was a conflict between science and religion. A major empirical hang-up was stellar parallax, a shift in observed position based on distance and movement. It would be nearly 200 years before we had instruments sensitive enough to actually observe this phenomenon. In other words, from a raw empirical standpoint, the Catholic Church was acting on the best available information. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but their decision was far more the result of deliberation than dogma. Galileo's real troubles were political, not scientific.


The Myth: Once upon a time, the Catholic Church formed an army of Inquisitors, who tortured and imprisoned vast numbers of people, forcing them to convert or die. Those who refused were either hung, or burned at the stake. Thousands of women were executed as witches, and the population lived in terror of the Inquisition. Untold thousands were killed.

The Truth: The Spanish Inquisition was requested, administrated, and implemented by the secular government of Spain, essentially borrowing Church resources. Over several centuries, it developed into a more clandestine effort, but remained primarily under secular direction. The motivation was social order; the primary targets were those professing beliefs which undermined established social structures. Over its approximately 400-year duration, the Inquisition is estimated to have executed about 100 suspected witches, and between 3-5,000 people in total.

The actual procedure for the Inquisition involved a sort of travelling court, which would spend nearly a month encouraging orthodoxy in a town. Those who rejected their ideas were excommunicated. Convicted heretics were typically assigned penance. It was common for local communities to deride the Inquisitors' sentences as too lenient, and drag the accused out of prisons to enact mob justice. Inquisitors used torture far less often than did purely secular courts. The populace was certainly sour on the Inquisition, but out of cynicism rather than fear. Many recognized the system as ripe for false accusations and land grabs.

Of course, even one instance of torture, or even one death, is too many. But the graphic depictions, staggering death tolls, and culture of terror invoked by pop culture are all historically false.


The Myth: Once upon a time, Christians organized large armies and attacked Islamic lands, forcing people to convert or die, and perpetrating terrible war crimes on the peaceful Muslim inhabitants.

The Truth: The early Crusades were all in response to Muslim aggression, both against Christian pilgrims and European territories. Islamic armies had aggressively pushed into Spain, the Mediterranean islands, and through most of the Middle East. The combination of rapid Muslim expansion, standing armies in Europe, and religious persecution of travelling Christians combined to spark the first Crusade. The first three Crusades were all in response to Islamic aggression.

Subsequent Crusades were more and more politicized, and popular opinion flagged as a result. These wars were also not particularly brutal or unusual, from a cultural standpoint. Islamic and Christian armies alike fought with the brutality common to all wars of that day and age. From the very beginning, voices within Christianity objected to the blending of religion and warfare. In fact, the expansion of Papal power and the use of questionable theology seen during the Crusades was a major factor in bringing about the Reformation. Interestingly, Islamic historians thought very little of the Crusades until fairly recently.

In short, religion was a tool used by Crusaders, and a rallying theme of the Crusades, but it was certainly not the ultimate motivation or cause of the Crusades. They can't be justified from a Biblical standpoint, but neither can they be painted as especially heinous, nor blamed on the Bible.


The Myth: Once upon a time, Tennessee jailed a public school teacher for discussing evolution with his class. Prosecutors based their case on the Bible, and blocked scientific evidence from being presented at trial. On a whim, the lead prosecutor, a preacher, was called to the witness stand, where the defense attorney exposed him as ignorant and uninformed. The preacher was so humiliated, he died of a heart attack. The teacher was exonerated and set free, and the Supreme Court ruled that laws against evolution were unconstitutional.

The Truth: Scopes was a physical education teacher who occasionally filled in for the science class. He would later admit he never actually taught evolution to anyone. Scopes volunteered to be prosecuted in response to a group of anti-religious businessmen, who concocted the trial as a test case-slash-publicity stunt. Scopes never saw the inside of a cell. The judge ordered all scientific evidence to be archived, since the actual trial had nothing to do with evolution, but whether Scopes had violated the Butler Act, which forbade teaching evolution in public schools and was later repealed.

Lead defense attorney Clarence Darrow took the case specifically so he could confront prosecutor William Jennings Bryan over religion. Darrow's cross-examination of Bryan was only a surprise to Bryan — Darrow held practice sessions with his legal team preparing his attack. On the stand, Bryan readily admitted that Genesis might not mean literal 24-hour days, and transcripts show he actually got the better of Darrow, who came across as petty. Bryan also noted that he'd read The Origin of Species, a book Darrow admitted he had given up on reading after 50 pages.

Bryan had only agreed to be examined as an expert on the Bible if he could put Darrow on the stand to answer for Darwinism, but after two hours of Darrow's questions, the judge ordered the entire exchange inadmissible. Darrow then asked the jury to find his client guilty, and waived his closing remarks specifically so Bryan would not be able to speak again. Scopes was fined $100, later overturned on the grounds that he could only have been fined $50. Bryan died a few days later in his sleep, having been in poor health for some time.

Most of what people think they know about The Scopes Trial actually comes from stage and film versions of Inherit the Wind, which was loosely based on the actual events. In fact, few people remembered or thought much of the Scopes Trial in the 30 years between the verdict and the play's debut.

These pseudo-historical myths do more than confuse, they deceive. Re-imagining the past to suit an anti-religious agenda may well suit the preferences of some, but it simply does not hold up to historical scrutiny. Those who base their opinions of religion on fairy tales need a healthy dose of reality to break the spell. In the future, I'll take individual looks at these anti-religious myths, and the historical realities behind them.

Published 5-28-14