I certainly didn't expect it...

Coffee break is sacred. The Spanish Inquisition, I mean. Then again who does?

I’ve been having this discussion with Ambrose for a few months now and I’m grateful to him for being open to discussion and for spending the time to answer me. It started with him boldly declaring that:

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.

I then answered in essence:

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.

And a couple of months ago Ambrose answered my answer.

In this post, I’m going to comment and answer that last post (which I haven’t done earlier because I’ve been lazy). I think it’s an important and interesting discussion because it captures essential differences in perspective between Humanists and Catholics (and other deists).

Apparently, Bertrand didn't read even the rather short article I referenced, by historian Thomas F. Madden, much less consult the book I referred to.

Mmh. Yes I did read the linked article (I do find it a wee bit insulting that Ambrose would think I didn’t), it’s just that I didn’t swallow it whole. I admit I did not read the book as the article provides enough material and references for discussion. I’ll give you a sample of the post, but be warned, it’s from the National Review...

[…] 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. […] The Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions.[…] it was not so easy to discern whether the accused was really a heretic. […The Inquisition] was born out of a need to provide fair trials for accused heretics using laws of evidence[…] As shepherds, the pope and bishops had a duty to bring them back into the fold […] the Church was trying to save souls. […] Compared to other medieval secular courts, the Inquisition was positively enlightened […] before 1530 the Spanish Inquisition was widely hailed as the best run, most humane court in Europe.

In other words, the Inquisition was a civilizing force and what you have learned about it in school is just “Protestant propaganda” and silly ideas from “French philosophes”. Right.

I did address that in my previous post, but Ambrose seems to have skipped that passage so let me quote myself:

[…] 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.

The only redeeming part in all this seems to be about saving souls as that appears to show good intentions. On the contrary I find that to be the most incriminating as it clearly shows how faith can convince people to commit the most atrocious crimes for a hypothetical greater good.

Although it’s important to get one’s facts straight, Ambrose misses the point entirely: it does not matter that the Church was torturing heretics in a kinder way than secular courts of the time or for kinder motives. What does matter is that the Church was torturing.

The whole enterprise is indefensible from a humanistic perspective because:

  • Torture is indefensible, for any motive.
  • Heresy is an entirely imaginary crime, one that has no victim.
  • There were clearly moral and honorable alternatives.

The Church was judging people for an imaginary crime, using the least humane methods. At the risk of repeating myself, what is defensible about that?

That was the essence of my post and I haven’t changed my mind. Now there are other points in Ambrose’s answer that I want to address.

I appreciate that Bertrand, unlike the militant atheists in the Dawkins and Hitchens crowd, seems to recognize there is goodness in religion, even if it only extends in as much as religious people share his humanistic values.

Well, at the risk of disappointing Ambrose, not exactly. Actually, like Hitchens and Dawkins I don’t think any of the goodness I see is especially dependent on religion. As to the second part of the comment, it is rather tautological as reversing it shows: I appreciate that Ambrose recognizes there can be goodness in Atheism, even if it only extends in as much as atheists share his moral values. We recognize goodness in others inasmuch as it coincides with our idea of good. Duh.

Ambrose’s next point is the following:

Even if you disagree with the premise that religious belief is a matter for public judgment (and the corresponding execution of sentences based on that judgment), it remains that this is not a question of denying human dignity but rather of what is a matter for public judgment.

Well, yes I do strongly disagree with that premise (and I hope Ambrose does too to be frank). But he is beating a strawman here: it’s not the trial that is a denial of humanity, it’s the torture.

Then Ambrose’s post get weird and imprecise:

[our contemporaries] use arbitrary and unverifiable criteria based on conjecture--not established judicial procedure by a qualified judge--to determine if a life has human dignity.

I’m really not sure what he’s referring to here, and I don’t want to conjecture. It would be useful to have more specifics, such as those in the next paragraph:

I don't know where Bertrand stands on life issues, but Catholics certainly are at the forefront in defending human life and human dignity, from conception to natural death.

And by “life issue” I’m supposing Ambrose means “abortion issues.” He wrote a whole post on it a while ago that looks charitable on the surface but is really making all kinds of unfounded assumptions. I have a position that probably won’t surprise much but I’ll devote a whole post to it because that’s not the kind of issue you resolve by grossly oversimplifying it.

The claim about Catholics being “at the forefront in defending human life and human dignity” is just bizarre to me. How exactly are they doing that? By glorifying suffering? By spreading disinformation and lies about proven ways to fight Aids (of which millions still die every year, many of which could be saved by proper prevention techniques)? By denying homosexuals dignity?

Speaking of dignity:

For humanists to pretend that belief in the dignity of the human person is an invention of the so-called Enlightenment is just preposterous.

And who exactly pretended that? It would indeed be a preposterous claim that I certainly never made. We are again beating a strawman here (nice use of “so-called” by the way). As I said in comments to the previous post:

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.

We then have a long argument denying that the Church as an institution believes itself sacred and above human laws through “not too fine” and “pretty straightforward” theological points:

No individual possesses [perfection] unqualifiedly before "getting to heaven."

Oh, so it’s an empty promise then: the Church will be perfect once everybody’s in Heaven. Of course, we will never get to verify that. As for what happens during this life:

[…] the very qualified and rare way that definitive, active infallibility is exercised in the Church and, as noted, only there have been only two known infallible definitions by a pope. So there is no burden on the faithful Catholic to defend every proclamation of a bishop or even the pope as if it were infallible.

That is a fine theory, but in practice and in my experience, many priests do believe themselves to be morally superior. It comes with the profession. Ambrose says it himself:

[…] priests should be better--they're supposed to be examples to us all!

Yes, there’s hope:

it is entirely unnecessary to defend, for instance, the decision of a pope to authorize torture as a tool in the inquisitions. […] I am of the conviction that we should recognize and address the serious failings of priests (and bishops and popes), both past and present.

Ah, at last. Ambrose could have just said that without all the tergiversation. Alas it doesn’t last:

[…] perhaps in that time and culture it was understandable. Would it have been better had torture not been authorized? Almost certainly, but it would be anachronistic of me to suggest that he should have known better.

Well, no. It never was understandable or forgivable. Especially coming from the moral and intellectual elite of its time. The Golden Rule, as I said above, has been known and understood as far back as we have historical traces. There is no way that a sane human being, under any time period, would consider creating such hell on Earth as torture without the support of a mind twister such as fanaticism or hate.

Dare I say it? This is nothing but the cheap kind of relativism conservatives keep accusing us godless liberals of. It may surprise them but we do have absolutes even if we usually tend to avoid thinking in black and white and to attempt to base them on rational thinking. Opposition to torture is one of them.

To conclude, I’d like to transpose one last quote of Ambrose’s into a different but comparable situation:

[…] if the Church had refused to participate as it did, it seems to me that far worse would have happened.

How the hell do you know? That is an old and tired excuse that is often used to rationalize morally indefensible decisions: juxtapose it with a hypothetical alternative and by all means don’t even consider that there might be anything outside of the false dichotomy.

Would more have been killed if the US hadn’t ended the war with Japan by unleashing nuclear power onto non-military targets? It doesn’t matter: it was wrong, don’t do it. Be more creative about alternatives. Don’t forget that there is always a moral and honorable choice and that you never have to compromise with evil. Unless you’re evil yourself.

I’d like to reiterate that despite all this I’m grateful to Ambrose for a civil and thoughtful discussion. I always appreciate conviction and debate even when I disagree.

Ite in pace.