Be inquisitive

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!Recently Ambrose pointed me to one of his posts in response to a snarky comment I made about the Inquisition on Twitter. His summary goes like this: "The Inquisition was a good thing for its time. You don't even have to be Catholic to think so, if you'll just look into the facts and how it was a civilizing and taming influence in otherwise extremely brutal times."

The argument is that the Inquisition wasn't doing the torturing and killing themselves, but rather that their role was to determine who was "innocent" and who was "guilty" and then hand them over to the competent authorities who would then proceed with the torturing and killing (which they were fully aware of). Of course, the crime these people were "guilty" of was to believe differently or to not believe at all.

I'd like to point out that this isn't even historically accurate but rather a negationist opinion: the aptly named Innocent IV authorized torture as a means to extract the truth in 1252 and it was widely used thereafter. It was even later extended to witnesses. Priests were allowed to absolve each other of their atrocious acts. And most of all, it was not the Church defending the innocent against civil authorities, it was pope after pope enjoining the civil authorities to execute the sentences under pain of excommunication. It's of course all duly recorded by the Church itself. But that's besides the point: even if Ambrose was right, which he's not by very far, the whole enterprise would still be condemnable.

Let me draw a little parallel to this. During WW2, the Maréchal Pétain accepted to lead the governement of then occupied France. The apology for it was that it would be better to have a respected French soldier in place rather than to let the Nazi have full power. Of course, the Nazi did effectively have full power and Pétain's role was just to pretend to govern and make it acceptable. He and others really were convinced that they were a civilizing and taming influence in otherwise extremely brutal times. The reality was quite different. Under his rule, Jews were deported as in the rest of occupied Europe, and the French police even collaborated with that atrocious enterprise. But of course, most of the time they weren't doing the torturing and killing themselves, they were just verifying the people arrested were Jews, and then handing them over to the Nazi, with a pretty good idea of what would happen to them.

Mmmh. Reminds me of something...

The honorable path during the war was not to be accomodating but to resist the Nazi ennemy, to do everything in your power to save your fellow human beings from the monsters who would kill them only because they were Jews, homosexuals or Gipsies.

In the same way, the honorable and truly civilizing path for the Church during the Dark Ages -and they had all the power to do it- would have been to give a message of tolerance.

No, really, you shouldn't defend Inquisition and pretend it was a benevolent organization. Please, be an adult and recognize when something you or an organization you belong to screwed up. It will elevate you, whereas the defensive position brings you down to the level of the guilty. I can't help but draw another parallel here with the recent pedophilia affairs. The attitude that consists in systematically defending the Church and covering up for hideous crimes, thus perpetuating them, is just not the attitude of responsible adults.

I hold the opinion that this is in large part caused by the fact that this organization believes itself to be holy and infallible.

The second component that explains this attitude in my opinion is the very explicit segregation of Humanity that comes with all of the three great monotheistic religions. Their holy books all place apostasy as one of the greatest of all sins. They all divide Humanity in two categories: those who believe in the One True God, and those who don't. Those who don't are considered sub-human and are promised eternal fire.

Contrast that with the philosophy that underlines the Enlightenment: humanism. If you are a humanist, you consider all humans as equally deserving respect. All of Humanity has the same rights, no matter what they believe in, be it a man in the sky, the Holy Trinity, Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Zeus or even nothing at all. The pigmentation of their skin doesn't matter, nor do their sex, their sexual orientation or their political opinions.

If you are a humanist, you must recognize the atrocities that the Terror was during the French Revolution. You have to recognize the absolute evil that was Nazism: the exclusion from Humanity and extermination of millions because of their origin or beliefs. You have to recognize the abomination of Communism and its disastrous consequences and millions of victims. Just as well as you must recognize the misled atrocity of Inquisition, of the persecution of the Jews throughout the ages. All were a negation of our universal Humanity.

I cannot think of a single reason why one would unconditionally support the worst that religion has done and still does today. There are plenty of religious people who embrace humanism as something fully compatible with their faith, and who are not embarrassed to recognize evil when they see it.

Instead of apologizing for the indefensible, you should be the first to forcefully reject the parts of your own religion that are archaic, barbaric and evil. That should only reinforce the core of it, which I understand is supposed to be love. Or maybe it could open your mind to moral principles that are more universal than any religion can ever be, because they are the essence of what makes us human rather than just tradition from millenia ago.

Archived comments

  • Ludovic Chabant said on Sunday, May 2, 2010

    ...and you get a Godwin point for this post! :)More seriously, what about the difference in "enlightenment" between the Dark Ages of the Inquisition and the mid-20th century of WW2? In between those 2 times, lots of progress had been made in philosophy, ethics, and overall quality of living. I have absolutely no idea how an average peasant in 14th century Spain grasped right and wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was quite different than what we rich western 21st century people think while posting on Facebook sitting on the couch.A half-dozen thousand years ago, it was probably "okay" to kill entire tribes, and along the way it became totally wrong (but note that it doesn't stop people from still doing it). I don't know where the European civilizations were at on the matter during the Inquisition...Now, don't get me wrong, killing entire tribes was never nice, but my guess is that what most people could think of back in 2000 BC was probably just "wow, my dad got killed and my sister got raped, this sucks big time, I'm gonna get revenge as soon as I can find a fucking sword", not "wow, my dad got killed and my sister got raped, I'm really living in a society governed by an unacceptable religion-driven system that doesn't care about my basic human rights". Sure, in retrospect, that's what it was basically about, but does that mean they were wrong not to figure it earlier?Now, arguably, during the Inquisition, people were probably "evolved" enough to see that torture was not a super nice way to interrogate people, especially when it was introduced by the guy that's supposed to embody a loving and forgiving God.On a side note, I remember reading some article about how torture had really been used only on a small percentage of trials back then. It was then supposedly blown out of proportion in popular culture through movies and fiction books, mostly because torture was indeed used during the trial of the Knights Templar. I don't know how accurate this is but if it's true, they may not have been much worse than your average counter-terrorism agency (which still rates around "not nice", mind you).
  • Bertrand Le Roy said on Sunday, May 2, 2010

    Ah, you're saying that because you haven't read Ambrose's post: he raised the Hitler card first, so he got the point.You raise some interesting points, but no matter how you look at it, you don't need to live in the 21st century to know that torture is wrong, and that wanting everybody to think the way you do is wrong. That's cheap relativism.Also remember that the priests at that time were pretty much the only educated people, so they should have had a higher responsibility to behave ethically.How many people were tortured is irrelevant: the highest authority of the time authorized it, several times, that's what counts. It shows that their morals were just fucked up beyond recognition.
  • Ludovic Chabant said on Sunday, May 2, 2010

    That's what I said: I agree that the Pope condoning torture was evil for sure. However, I don't agree that torture is universally evil. For example, when your cat plays with a mouse or a bird before killing it, does this qualify as torture? I'd think so. But is the cat evil? I would think not. And the bird and mouse probably too. Sure, they would think that the cat is a motherfucking scary killing machine and it sucks that they got caught, but they wouldn't think he's *ethically wrong*.Now, what I'm saying is I don't know at what point the human race as a whole evolved to the point where we consider torture to be evil. Maybe it was right from the start? And that's what set us apart and how we built the first civilization? In which case, sure, you can judge pretty much any political decision in any century and decide which one was right or wrong... Or maybe this mental shift came later, and there are ancient civilizations in which people were not any more evil than your cat even though they tortured other people, because that's just how their brains worked. And it's pretty tricky because in that case, there must be a long stretch of time during which this whole notion of torture being wrong was really fuzzy.... yeah, is why it's probably easier to say that humans had a basic understanding of right and wrong right from the start, so you can judge the entirety of history on the same core values... but honestly, I'm not so sure about it.Think of another case: birth defects. You're living in, say, 11th century France and your neighbour's son is born with a tail. Is everybody then wrong to think that he's the reincarnation of the devil and should be burned? Well, obviously, we now know they're wrong thanks to later medical discoveries, so in retrospect, yeah that was definitely evil. But was it at the time, when they didn't think it was a human baby anyway? Who do you blame, then? The villagers for believing in unproven religious beliefs? The lack of education? The virtual absence of scientific method throughout society? The influence of the clergy?I realize that this kind of reasoning would basically somewhat "excuse" all kinds of past horrors like slavery (back when white people weren't even sure africans were humans either), so in order not to go there I would very much like to believe that yes, human beings always knew, deep down, that torture is evil, that a baby can't be the devil, that skin color is not a species differentiator (although it is for some other animals!), and all that... and it's just that throughout history, there's been an awful lot of evil douchebags.... but, it leads us to the conclusion that, well... there's been really an AWFUL LOT of evil douchebags around.Frankly, I don't know which is worse... that, or the fact that it was once okay to kill babies. At least, now, it not okay to do that anymore... but there are still evil douchebags around.
  • Bertrand Le Roy said on Sunday, May 2, 2010

    You're not a cat. Neither were any popes that I know of.The Golden Rule was well understood in the dark ages and about as far back in history as we have records. It's even in the freaking Book(s). It seems to come from empathy, which is a quality that all apes seem to share. It's part of what makes us human.Again, there's plenty of evidence that it was always there and I'm holding on to the position that we can judge events of the past in the light of 21st century ethics, to a degree (I would gladly concede that there are discoveries in terms of ethics and blaming our ancestors for not following those would be absurd. But torture? Not one of them).You hit the nail on the head when you point out that lots of evil could be perpetrated from a denial of humanity. That was part of my point: all great evil starts by denying the humanity of a category of the population (heretics, black people, tailed infants, Jews, you name it) because it would go against our wiring as human beings to inflict torture on our fellow human beings. In order to perform it, you must first destroy the notion that your target is human.My whole point was that religions do that by dividing humanity between the True Faithful and the heretics. Humanism on the other hand, makes torture and other barbaric acts impossible by making humanity an inalienable quality of all members of our species.
  • Ludovic Chabant said on Sunday, May 2, 2010

    Have there been studies about whether gorillas and other great apes have indeed empathy? Do they react to humans hurting another ape that they've never met before?
  • Ludovic Chabant said on Sunday, May 2, 2010

    Actually, the real study would be to see how an ape reacts to 2 apes he doesn't know, one of which is hurting the other one. Introducing a human in the mix would probably throw off the results.
  • Ludovic Chabant said on Sunday, May 2, 2010

    Interesting... according to Wikipedia:Recent studies have shown that chimpanzees engage in apparently altruistic behaviour within groups,[21][22] but are indifferent to the welfare of unrelated group members.[23]Evidence for "chimpanzee spirituality" includes display of mourning, "incipient romantic love", "rain dance", appreciation of natural beauty such as a sunset over a lake, curiosity and respect towards wildlife (such as the python, which is neither a threat nor a food source to chimpanzees), empathy toward other species (such as feeding turtles) and even "animism" or "pretend play" in chimps cradling and grooming rocks or sticks.[24] does that mean chimpanzees would be okay torturing other chimpanzees if they don't belong to their tribe?
  • Bertrand Le Roy said on Monday, May 3, 2010

    I guess we'll never know, because such an experiment would be unethical :) What we can and do study on the other hand is the mechanisms by which torture is made acceptable to humans. Denial of humanity is just one of the many ways.
  • Ludovic Chabant said on Monday, May 3, 2010

    It wouldn't be unethical if you're just observing chimpanzees hurt each other. That's what researchers do all the time -- observe animals hunt and kill each others and take notes.
  • Bertrand Le Roy said on Monday, May 3, 2010

    If you can catch them in the act. You wouldn't be able to induce it. I doubt torture exists spontaneously in other apes' behavior but I could be wrong.